MBTA reform proposal divides business community
An MBTA employee worked on a Blue Line car this winter, when the transit agency experienced a service meltdown.
Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to overhaul the beleaguered MBTA has proved divisive, and not just among politicians and transportation advocates. Business and industry groups are also lining up on opposite sides of the bill, in some cases pitting past allies against each other.
At a contentious legislative hearing this week, a coalition of about 25 prominent business groups testified in support of Baker’s measure, demanding “aggressive steps” to fix the public transit system. The coalition, spearheaded by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce , says it represents the majority of Massachusetts companies and includes such heavyweights as the Massachusetts High Technology Council .
But another coalition of business groups, led by A Better City, testified against Baker’s bill, saying it slashes needed funding and adds red tape. Some of its members stood side-by-side with the chamber as recently as last fall, when they campaigned against a ballot initiative that ended the link between increases in the gasoline tax and the consumer price index.
Even more awkward, some of the groups now battling each other over Baker’s proposal share common board members.
“I don’t know what caused the pivot in their thinking,” said Richard Dimino, president and chief executive of A Better City, a business advocacy group whose membership includes prominent hospitals, hotels, law firms, developers, and financial services companies.
“Maybe they see the facts differently. The business community is certainly not monolithic.”
Business groups have assumed a vocal role in the debate over the T. They were deluged with complaints from their members about the shutdowns of subway and commuter rail service during this year’s unusually snowy winter, which stranded thousands of customers and employees and cost companies millions in lost sales and productivity.
Now, they are determined to help push through changes before the snow falls again.
“The February T problems caused the greatest frustration among our members that we’ve seen in a very long time,” said Jim Klocke, executive vice president of the Chamber. “There was a ton of lost business in all kinds of industries.”
Neither coalition is fighting to maintain the status quo. Each agrees the T is vital to the state’s economy, and that its failure this winter was unacceptable. And with political will and public interest high, all parties acknowledge there is a limited window of opportunity to make lasting changes that can stabilize the state’s public transit system for decades.
“If we don’t make the grand fix, if we put it off again with a Band-Aid, we probably will not get another chance,” said David Begelfer, chief executive of the state’s main commercial real estate development group, NAIOP Massachusetts, which supports Baker’s bill. “The stars are aligned right now.”
Baker’s legislation would give the governor more control by, among other things, establishing a temporary “fiscal and management control board” to oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, removing restrictions on fare increases and making it easier for the MBTA to contract work out to private companies. Importantly, it would also suspend about $500 million in funding that had been scheduled for transportation projects, including at the T, in coming years.
Proponents in the business community say Baker needs free rein to make changes quickly and decisively. They like the idea of a strong control board focused only on the T and separate from the current board, which oversees all transportation matters in the state.
Malfunctions like the ones that plagued Greenbush Station in Scituate this past winter triggered the governor’s efforts to overhaul the MBTA’s operations.
“If you tie his hands behind his back, you’re not going to get success,” Begelfer said. “You could look at each aspect [of Baker’s proposal] and second-guess everything, but my gut feeling is, defer to the person who’s going to take ultimate responsibility. If that’s not successful, then we know exactly where to go and say, ‘why did this not work?’ ”
But Dimino and other critics say there is much that is wrong with Baker’s bill. They see the control board as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and say the proposal fails to address the T’s maintenance backlog. They worry about exorbitant fare hikes and contend the measure would deprive the state’s transportation system, including the T, of $500 million in much-needed funding over the coming years.
“I don’t understand how you fix the system without supporting this funding that’s already there, and providing additional funding going forward,” Dimino said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We should fix the T and be ready to build for the future.”
Dimino’s camp got a boost Tuesday when the Senate rejected Baker’s plan and submitted a package of milder measures. The governor has said he wants a bill on his desk before the summer legislative recess.
Proponents insisted they are not supporting the bill to curry political favor with Baker.
“Our position in grounded entirely in the views of our members and our desire to see the T be a 21st-century system,” Klocke said, adding that if Baker’s changes are approved, credit for their success — or responsibility for their failure — will rest squarely with the governor.
What’s on the table
Governor Baker would create a “control board” to oversee the MBTA, eliminate a cap on fare increases, hold back some $500 million in promised funding from the state, and suspend a law that limits the privatizing of public services.
Those in favor
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks Massachusetts, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and others say the T needs strong measures such as those proposed by Baker.
A Better City, Masco, and the 128 Business Council, among others, contend Baker’s plan would underfund a cash-starved system, fail to offer a long-term financial solution, and create more bureaucracy with the control board.