The shell game

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At times, government seems like little more than a “shell game,” with the ultimate goal of increasing its budgets, expanding its reach, and bloating its bureaucracy, all at the expense of taxpaying families.

When the government acts effectively, at least some justification for expansion exists. After all, when it’s doing something well, why not expand that function? Reasonable in a common sense way, even this concession makes classical liberals and libertarians cringe. Their vigilance guards us all against government overreach.

On the other hand, bureaucrats, politicians, and big government advocates react defensively when government operates ineffectively, corruptly, or downright harmfully. Rather than humbly accepting that government agencies often follow unwise, ill-advised, and overly-expensive paths, they double down and demand greater funding to shore up failing bureaucracies. Never do activists pull back, reconsider, and conclude: “This is not government’s proper role. Let’s drop this program and focus on what can be done reasonably well.”

At this moment the MBTA faces this kind of dilemma. Since the 1980s, public transportation advocates have lobbied for a 4.7 mile extension of the Green Line from Lechmere Station in Cambridge through Somerville and into Medford. In yet another example of big government never pulling back, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board voted unanimously on May 9 to press ahead with this much delayed, seemingly snake-bitten Green Line Extension.

A happy result for government expansion means less than positive prospects for taxpayers and fiscal watchdogs. In a nutshell, the extension had an original price tag of slightly under $2 billion, evenly borne between state and federal taxpayers. Upon closer review in 2015, state overseers upped number to a whopping $3 billion.

Citing inflating costs, the state once again opted to delay rather than cancel the project. Naturally, the proverbial consultants were hired to review the plans. The MBTA and the Mass DOT breathed new life into the extension new by sending this so-called “scaled back” proposal to the Federal Transit Administration for review and approval or further modification.

Of course, we first must understand the state government’s definition of “scaled back.” In euphemistic MBTA speak, a scaled back project is one whose sticker price was $1.92 billion less than a year ago. Then the cost was goosed to about $3 billion. Now, the scaled-back plan comes in at a mere $2.3 billion, more than 15 percent above the initial planned expenditure. But of course the bureaucrats spin the increase as a dramatic cutback from the gilded $3 billion Taj Mahal version. When you’re playing a shell game, the aim is to confuse the suckers, in this case hapless working taxpayers.

In sum, government is claiming to be “saving” more than $600 million, rather than spending an extra $300 million. But in a shell game, how you count the numbers really doesn’t matter.

One “scale backs” involves shortening and maintaining, instead of eliminating a bike path. Precisely what a bike path has to do with trolley expansion taxes the imagination. That’s part of the shell game too. Liberals want a taxpayer-funded bike path, so it’s slipped into an infrastructure project, adding a special interest treat for biking enthusiasts.

Another “scale back” consists of removing “fare gates” from the trolley stations. This comes at a time the MBTA is studying the problem of “fare evasion” at other transit stations. It’s hard to see how this “cut back” will not result in more free riders, less passenger revenue, and greater reliance on taxpayer dollars. But, then again, it’s all a shell game anyway, isn’t it?

Unwisely, Governor Charlie Baker has largely insulated himself from the decision about expansion. By deferring to his Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, he has done no favors for this highly regarded advocate for public transportation. With her own background promoting the Green Line extension, Secretary Pollack cannot realistically be expected to kill it, even as she expresses caution about its excesses.

Well before her position in the Baker cabinet, Pollack worked for the Conservation Law Foundation, a liberal organization with little regard for taxpayers. Because the Green Line extension began as environmental “mitigation” agreed to by the Dukakis Administration as part of the Big Dig, the Conservation Law Foundation contends that the state must proceed with it regardless of costs. Speaking of former Governor Michael Dukakis, Pollack served as Associate Director for Research at Northeastern University’s Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, prior to joining the state payroll. Yes, that’s the same Mike Dukakis who in 1990 agreed to the Conservation Law Foundation’s demands with respect to the Green Line Extension.

This gets more convoluted than an MBTA bus schedule. But then, it’s just another big government shell game in which the CLF and Governor Dukakis desired the same outcome, transit expansion paid for by working taxpayers. In circular fashion, a liberal non-profit threatens lawsuits against a liberal administration in order to justify a mutually satisfactory result, all the while saddling taxpayers with the bill.

Here’s how it has played out for the rest of us. First, we had to endure and pay for the Big Dig, as clear an example of government over-indulgence as can be conceived. Now, because of agreements made of, for, and by big government liberals hatching the Big Dig, we will be forced to pony up for a Green Line boondoggle that includes their bike path. If this were the dreaded private sector, some folks would be doing the “perp walk” for some kind of insider shenanigans.

But this is the public sector and the non-profit sector, where it’s just another shell game.

Secretary Pollack is undoubtedly as honest and trustworthy as the most upright businesswoman. And had a Secretary of Transportation hailed from the private sector, she would keep a safe distance from a costly project for which she had long advocated. But working in the non-for-profit sector immunizes one-and-all from any appearance of conflict. That’s because we have been conditioned by the liberal entertainment industry and the mainstream news media to distrust the private sector as greedy and corrupt, while whitewashing the public sector and non-profits as pristine and altruistic. When taxpayer dollars are at risk, a healthy dose of skepticism – if not outright cynicism – is warranted for all sectors.

Of course, moving forward with the extension requires contracts with private sector construction companies, and even more ominously an expansion of the state bureaucracy. In words that should scare taxpayers, Secretary Pollack has been widely quoted as saying that “there is no one on the MBTA payroll right now that can manage the project.” That’s because the state wants to experiment with a “procurement methodology” that T managers have no experience implementing. One might think it would be prudent to test it on small projects, before gradually ramping up to an immense one like the Green Line Extension. By why hesitate when you can hire dozens of new bureaucrats and consultants? The Mike Dukakis of “good jobs at good wages” memory would indeed be proud.

Years ago when laboring in the non-profit sector, Pollack was quoted by The Boston Globe as saying about the state and, by implication, taxpayers: “They can’t just say, ‘We’re broke.'” Now a state employee on the receiving end of taxpayer largesse, she notes that the bureaucracy has a “clear preference to proceed with the project if there’s a way to pay for it.”

Everyone’s on board including Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, a project booster who confidently predicts that any budget gap will be closed because “we have enough creativity to figure that out.” When politicians and bureaucrats start getting creative, working taxpayers best hold onto their wallets.

Joseph Tortelli

Joseph Tortelli

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