Monday, October 15, 2007

Transportation Lessons from Massachusetts: Integration and Accountability v. Diffusion and Chaos

Note: The following is a guest column from Paras Bhayani. Please submit guest columns to

When thinking about transportation issues in Illinois, it can often be useful to look around the country to see what other American cities are doing to improve their transit systems and how they are working to place transit in the broader context of regional transportation.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of cities from which Chicago can draw meaningful lessons. The American cities with transit systems like Chicago's—buses and non-surface trains in the city, commuter rail for the suburbs—are New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston. While many readers might be familiar with the excellent networks of New York and D.C., Boston—a city with normal levels of tourism and federal funding—can serve as a more useful model in terms of how it organizes and thinks about transportation.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is responsible for all transit in Boston and its suburbs. Much like the CTA, the MBTA operates a subway system in Boston and its inner suburbs—cities like Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Newton. The MBTA also operates commuter rail lines that extend to the limits of the metropolitan region—Worcester, Lowell, and Providence, R.I.—much like Metra does in Chicago. Finally, the MBTA—yes, the same agency—runs buses in many of the suburbs, though the far-flung parts of the metropolitan region (Worcester) have their own bus systems.

Organizationally, Illinois has much to learn from Massachusetts. The latter abolished county governments in late-1990s—for those following the Stroger chronicles, this doesn't sound like a bad idea for Illinois, but I digress—meaning that the composition of the MBTA board of directors is removed from local county boards chiefs and/or blocs of commissioners.

The board of directors, appointed by the governor and serving coterminous with him, ratifies all planning and budget decisions for the MBTA. The board also chooses the general superintendent—the effective czar of the region's transit system. The effect is that the system is highly-centralized, integrated, and accountable; all blame for MBTA's failings can be laid at the feet of the governor and his superintendent.

I would be the first to admit that talent—and not just institutions—matters a great deal. Massachusetts has benefited recently from a reformist, Huberman-like general superintendent who has made substantial capital improvements to the system. But anyone who has taken a serious look at Illinois transit would acknowledge that diffuse authority across the service boards and a lack of accountability—the buck clearly does not stop with either Daley or Blagojevich—have been two key factors in creating the mess that is Chicago transit.

The centrality and cohesiveness of the Massachusetts transportation agencies will be taken to a new level if a plan being crafted by Governor Deval Patrick, a native of Chicago's south side, is enacted. Under Patrick's plan, the boards of both the Mass Pike—the Illinois equivalent of IDOT—and the MBTA would be abolished, and a new "Massachusetts Transportation Authority" would be responsible for all transportation in the state.

Like the MBTA and the Massachusetts Turnpike today, the board of MassTrans would be appointed by the governor. But the new agency would have an exceptionally large mandate (everything that affects how people move on the surface) and exceptionally wide budgetary authority (every dollar spent on transportation). The massive centralization of power within the governor's office has no precedent in the United States.

While the plan is in its early stages, an agency like MassTrans would allow for a great deal more coordination in transit and road construction—projects like the Dan Ryan median could become commonplace—as well as a tighter integration of surface transport with the region's three airports. The new agency would also be able to refinance the Commonwealth's transportation debt at more favorable rates, thereby reducing long-term borrowing costs and making new bonds—and new expansions—less costly.

The bold thinking evidenced by this plan is necessary given that Massachusetts must invest $19 billion over the next 20 years to simple maintain current standards of performance.

If IDOT, which is in better financial shape than the transit system, were merged with the RTA and its three sub-agencies (CTA, Metra, Pace), the sky would be the limit for synergy, greater efficiency, and improved coordination. Such a superagency would not just allow for broader strategic thinking, but could use its fiscal power to focus dollars on the weakest areas of the region's transportation grid. One could imagine a case where tolls or gasoline taxes are used, for the first time, to subsidize transit. And for those of us who would love to see congestion pricing implemented in the Loop, determining what to do with those dollars—and how to reduce the strain on suburban and peripheral city residents—is a job that could only be handled well by an agency with a broad focus and a broad budgetary portfolio.

I want to take care not to glorify too much the state of transit in Massachusetts. To be sure, the region faces challenges, many of them stemming from former Governor Mitt Romney's decision to drop billions of dollars of legacy costs from the "Big Dig"—a project that principally benefited drivers—onto the back of the MBTA. As a result, the MBTA is currently spending 27 percent of its budget, or its entire take from fares, on debt service, and hiked subway fares from $1.25 to $1.70 this past January.

Still, it's worth noting that in a city as expensive as Boston, the subway is still less expensive than in Chicago. And politicians seem to be getting the message: In addition to Patrick's massive reform bill, which has not yet been unveiled, legislators from Cambridge and Somerville are pushing a bill that would make the Commonwealth responsible for $2.9 billion of the MBTA's $5.7 billion in debt—an effort to stave off fare increases and allow more money to be spent on maintenance. The bill has already received the blessing of both legislative leaders and the governor.


Paras Bhayani, a native of Palos Heights, Ill., currently lives in Cambridge, Mass. He has long been active with the Illinois and Massachusetts chapters of the Sierra Club, and closely follows transit politics and politics more generally in both states.


Nick said...

Everything you say makes sense--yet Bostonites have little good to say about the performance of the MBTA!

Anonymous said...

That's true, but only because people in Boston haven't ridden the CTA.

All my Chicago friends here think the MBTA is great by comparison: there are no slow zones anywhere (I have never had a train stop on the tracks; I had a Blue Line train do this *three* in one trip from O'Hare to the Loop); the train cars and buses are cleaner; there are electronic monitors and intercom announcements about approaching trains at every station, which are well-lighted and often decorated with art work; and the system-wide shift last year to "Charlie Cards" proceeded without a hitch.

Boston residents who complain about the MBTA are like Chicagoans who complain about our economy without ever having visited Detroit or St. Louis.

Anonymous said...

The idea of one central transportation authority is tempting, but how would such a board solve the problems of competing regional interests? The problem in IL is that most of the money goes to auto infrastructure. What would stop a unified board of patronage appointees from continuing or worsening the imbalance?

An opposite system might be at least as workable: take all taxes out of the hands of the state and hand them to the counties based on population and contribution. Support the state by "bailouts" from each county.

Unknown said...

The MBTA has at least been able to relatively balance the needs of core and suburban areas fairly effectively, quite unlike other superagencies that cover entire metro areas (SEPTA and LACMTA come to mind). (Speaking of LACMTA, it also runs heavy rail, light rail, BRT, buses, HOV lanes, and participates in commuter rail operation. Similarly, the Bay Area has a similar modal mix, but spread across dozens of agencies, and technically Miami also has heavy and commuter rail.)

The CA/T debt offloaded onto MBTA undeniably complicates the picture, but it's still surprising that MBTA receives what amounts to a 1% statewide sales tax -- and still finds itself in the same financial straits as RTA, which has far less taxing authority.

On the toll linkage front, Bob Moses famously set up MTA so that bridge tolls could pay for transit, and Pennsylvania's transit bailout package this year relied pretty heavily on tolls.

Anonymous said...

I'd hardly say that the MBTA's transition to the Charlie Card system went without a hitch. They, for reasons that boggle the mind, decided that they would convert the stations one by one over a period of months. The result was that for many people (myself included) you had to actually keep track of which stations had the new Charlie Card gates, and which had the old token turnstiles, and make sure that you had whatever you'd need for both stations often meaning that you needed to carry both your Charlie Card (well, technically at that time we didn't have Charlie Cards yet, we had Charlie Tickets—which we still have but they cost more) and tokens. This went on, literally, for months.

And that's not even taking the buses into account! The buses didn't get their Charlie Card readers for longer still meaning that not only did you need to carry your Charlie Ticket and your tokens for the subway, but you also needed to be sure you had exact change (90¢ back then) for the bus! For people who regularly rode the bus to the T, or vice versa, this was a phenomenal pain in the ass that could have been easily solved with a little forward thinking (why not leave a few token turnstiles in all the stations until every station has at least one Charlie gate and then transition fully over so that the system moves seamlessly from tokens to Charlie Cards without any confusion or needing to keep track of which station has which?).

Flip said...

Please don't idolize the MBTA! My time in Boston having been broken up by a stint in Chicago, I can say that except for the scuzziness of the CTA's underground stations, the El is far better than the T. (Still, how could the City of Broad Shoulders tolerate those narrow train doors?) As for Chicago's bus system, again, no comparison. The busses were clean, on time, and spread out along their routes like they're supposed to be, instead of running in packs. I'll take Chicago's multitude of tranist agencies of the MBTA any day.

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