What are we going to do about it? There is no magic bullet, but I think the central challenge is clear: We need to grow hands-on talent and committed executive leadership in transportation agencies across the state and that means putting the money in place to retain them. Young people and career changers and transportation professionals considering Massachusetts as a place to live and work need to know that Massachusetts is committed to solving its transportation problems and recognizes that it will take sustained effort.
I’ve listened to a lot of conversations about what it would take to move the fixes faster. It just is not easy to spend money well. The challenges include avoiding disruption in service, the need for quality engineering and oversight, a tight labor market in both the public and private sector, and the public process – some projects are uncontroversial, but many have community consequences that need to be fully understood. All of these challenges can be addressed, but only if we can retain talent. As the challenges have grown over the past five years, the head count at MassDOT has actually drifted downwards by 13% (excluding the reductions due to automated tolling).
Retaining talent requires additional permanently dedicated revenues. It is true that Commonwealth has the borrowing capacity to fund more transportation projects. From a short run perspective, revenue is not the problem. Over the past few years, the MBTA has roughly doubled its capital spending. If MBTA management believed that they could deliver another few hundred million in projects, the Commonwealth could fund those projects without maxing out its access to credit. And, the Baker administration could and, I believe, would make those additional funds available without additional legislative authorizations.
But the possibility of borrowing does not give MassDOT the assurance of long-term organizational stability. Borrowed funds cannot be used to pay for permanent staff. We need to commit funds to support engineering and planning staff, so that we can build a deep organization committed to moving Massachusetts forward.
And if we are to attract those workers, they need to know that the funds will be in place to realize the vision that they help us shape. The transportation projects that are on the horizon loom large. Really making our commuter rail system work to its full potential will take a couple of decades and could make the Big Dig look easy. The challenges will only increase as the region grows and as sea level rise forces us to harden assets and perhaps to shift routes. Technology changes may greatly expand the need for spending on computer software and hardware to support sophisticated mobility management.
The Commonwealth has very high debt and pension liabilities. The bond rating agencies seem comfortable with our debt management team and with the economic health of the Commonwealth, which is the foundation of our ability to pay debt service. The bond holders are not worried about getting paid. But that does not mean we have a funding approach that will really work for Massachusetts over the long term. Another fundamental reason to commit additional revenues to transportation is so that we can fund our capital projects out of current revenues and slowly lower our relative debt burden. We need to assure the next generation the financial capacity to respond to the even larger problems they are likely to face.
There are a lot of ways to increase the funds dedicated for transportation, but broadly they fall in three groups – contractual dedication of existing revenues, new or increased charges on transportation users and new or increased general taxes. I am personally open to all three and a mixed strategy is likely where we need to go.
One thing is very much in my mind: Transportation is essential, like food, shelter and health care. We raise deep equity issues as we raise charges on transportation users – both drivers and transit riders. Everyone should be able to afford to get to work. And we also have to be very careful about the incentive structure we create. I do meet people who are driving long distances to work because the commuter rail is so expensive.
We will not get the whole problem solved this fall, but I do hope we can make meaningful progress that builds momentum for more progress.