Taking taxpayers on a runaway ride 

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/23/taking-taxpayers-on-a-runaway-ride/

The image of a driverless runaway train provides the perfect visual metaphor for the endless travails of the MBTA, especially following the snowbound debacle of last winter.

But the runaway train is not just a metaphor or a figure of speech. It actually happened.

On Thursday, Dec. 10, a Red Line train scheduled to travel north from Braintree started chugging forward.

But wait! Where was the train operator?

He had stepped off to check on a persistent signal malfunction. Unfortunately, he had neglected to secure the passenger train. Panic ensued. Fortunately, MBTA central operators were able to slow and stop the train by cutting the power to the third rail. Disaster was averted.

Minus the runaway train drama, the Massachusetts taxpayers are facing a potential financial disaster of another sort. Barreling down a parallel track, the MBTA’s expansion plans are rolling toward a collision with sound fiscal judgment. Just as the runaway train ultimately came under control, so the expansion plans have been slowed, at least temporarily. Yet the financial safety of taxpayers remains far from certain.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority plans to add 4.7 miles to the Green Line, which for decades has ended at Lechmere in Cambridge. Extending tracks through Somerville and Medford, the light rail extension promises to add seven new stations to the line. But the project has been hit by a kind of fiscal nor’easter. By mid-2015, the anticipated cost overruns were sending shivers through the state transportation bureaucracy, as estimates jumped from $2 billion to $3 billion in less than a year. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board took note, announced a 90-day moratorium on design and contracting, and severed ties to four contractors.

The idea of a Fiscal Management and Control Board at the MBTA sounds like an oxymoron or a stale joke. This time, it may be different. Formed in July 2015 in response to the disasters of the previous winter, the Control Board shoulders the responsibility of avoiding another season when significant parts of the T virtually shut down.

Among the challenges facing the Control Board is what to do about the Green Line. The MassDOT and the MBTA Control Board could recommend outright cancellation of the Green Line Extension. This common sense approach would end the fiscal hemorrhaging, while freeing up the T to focus on improving the existing public transportation system. But such a reasonable approach gets caught in the webs of Massachusetts governance, where nothing is so simple.

Incredibly, the same bureaucrats who completely mishandled the supersized Big Dig, also saddled taxpayers with the bills for a future Green Line Extension. And this project is being managed with the same appalling lack of concern about bringing it in “on time and on budget.”

Undoubtedly, when voters elected Governor Charlie Baker, a widely admired administrator, they expected to avoid such pitfalls in the future. Yet the Baker Administration may be stuck with unappealing options.

One alternative may oblige the state to complete another inefficient project in the face of litigation referencing the Clean Air Act and binding agreements dating all the way back to the Big Dig. The threat of a federal Clean Air lawsuit may browbeat politicians and bureaucrats into moving ahead with the Green Line project despite misgivings. Like the Big Dig, the Green Line will be financed by bonds for which the taxpayers are ultimately responsible. It seems that every interest group has a voice in these projects, except for middle class families who end up paying the ballooning bills.

Even if litigation is sidestepped, other traps have already been set. To date, the taxpayers have been held up for $742 million in “sunk costs,” even if the project is abandoned. That’s right, if the project is constructed, the taxpayers get to foot the excessive design and construction bills; if it’s cancelled, they get to pay the “sunk” costs. Either way, one might be forgiven for thinking it is the middle class taxpayers who really get “sunk.”

Then there’s the federal government enticement lurking ahead. The Federal Transit Administration has agreed to commit nearly $1 billion dollars to the Green Line construction. By walking away from the extension, the state would forfeit a huge chunk of federal money. That’s a tempting inducement that few politicians or bureaucrats can ignore. When federal tax dollars are waved around, state pols can rationalize: “It’s not our money.  But we get to spend it, anyway!”

Federal dollars evaporate if the state cancels the project; federal funds materialize if the state proceeds. Although it doesn’t technically qualify as a bribe, such incentives cloud independent thinking and wise decision making at the state or local level.

In the meantime, the T recently cancelled eight so-called “public art projects” planned for the seven proposed Green Line stations. In typical government fashion, taxpayers have already been charged over $200,000 for the misspent dreams of some MBTA bureaucrats. Still, it’s better to cut losses now.

Amidst all the gloom, there is some welcome news. That runaway Red Line train was stopped without loss of life or limb thanks to the calm and professional actions of veteran MBTA employees Ainsley Saunders and Mark McNeill. The train driver has been fired. But the resolution remains far from in sight yet, as he has filed a grievance. If that fails, he can, of course, sue for back pay and reinstatement. Regardless of what happens, one fears the taxpayers will bear the costs.

Pleading on behalf of the Green Line Extension that will benefit his local interests, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone was quoted as asking: “If we can’t build it, what can we build in this Commonwealth?”

Maybe for a start, it’s time to build some trust and confidence that hard-working taxpayers will be protected from the costly and chronic mistakes and mismanagement of politicians and bureaucrats.

Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read his past columns here.

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