Paul McMorrow

Boston’s success depends on T

By Paul McMorrow
April 8, 2011

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CITIES HAVE to grow, and the place for them to grow is on top of mass transit. A few decades ago, that was an academic argument. Today, it’s standard operating procedure. It’s just how neighborhoods get built.

Of course, the great assumption underpinning transit-oriented growth is that the transit will be there — to divorce construction from gridlock, to allow people to move around an ever-crowding urban environment, and to put scarce, expensive land into productive use, instead of reserving it for parking. Without mass transit, there is no urban growth.

That’s why the financial struggles of the MBTA are so important — and the state’s unwillingness to confront the T’s struggles so troubling. Without the T, Greater Boston can’t grow. And in the absence of growth, cities wither and crumble.

The T is rushing toward insolvency at an alarming rate. Internal MBTA budget projections anticipate $1.1 billion in total deficits by 2016. Selling off parking revenues to Wall Street, as the agency wants to do, would only lower the deficits to $1 billion. Financial jiujitsu closed a $67 million deficit this year. Without the Wall Street parking deal, next year’s deficit will be nearly twice that, at $132 million. In the state election year of 2014, it will reach $223 million. By 2016, it will top $344 million. Those aren’t holes the agency can cut itself out of.

The T isn’t just saddled with loads of debt. It’s also facing massive operating budget increases across the board, in everything from health care to fuel costs to maintenance. The T’s operating bills are growing more quickly than its much-discussed debt service tab. Worse, everyday expenses are growing three times more quickly than revenues.

Absent a massive financial intervention from Beacon Hill, the T’s insolvency appears to be a mathematical certainty. It’s spending more cash than it has, and the gulf between revenues and expenses is widening. That’s not a recipe for anything but a fiscal disaster.

The way we’ve built cities and planned for future growth means mass transit carries tremendous economic importance. It’s not just the urban poor who depend on buses and trains to travel to and from work. A deep-rooted environmental and urban planning movement has sold city dwellers of all classes on the irrelevance of cars in the urban environment. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is actively trying to slash the number of parking spots it requires large-scale developers to construct, especially along the South Boston waterfront.

Countless billions of dollars worth of planned development in and around Boston depends on the T’s continued existence. The multi-billion-dollar reconstruction of Quincy’s downtown doesn’t work without the Red Line. Somerville planners are counting on the Green and Orange lines to open up whole neighborhoods to redevelopment. Kendall Square — the most important cog in the state’s technology and innovation economy — has 4 million square feet of transit-dependent development in its pipeline. Boston has nearly 60 million square feet of future growth either permitted or planned — including 20 million square feet in South Boston. All of it needs the T to flourish.

Until now, the T has been able to shirk expensive transit projects that would promote growth because there’s been somewhere else for that growth to flow. The years-long delay of the Green Line extension to Somerville, for instance, has been mitigated by new development opportunities around North Station. Nor has the failure to link the Silver Line’s Seaport and Washington Street arms brought home consequences yet. The connection was explicitly referenced in the environmental permits for the World Trade Center office complex in South Boston, but slower-than-expected development along the waterfront has delayed the consequences of serving a high-growth area with a slow subterranean bus. And so far, the T’s financial woes haven’t threatened the system as a whole.

Now, however, the T’s budget woes go far beyond the Green Line and Silver Line projects. They’re so massive that they’re calling into question the way we build the city and plan for its future. The sweeping economic consequences of mass transit should serve as a wake-up call — both to the T, an agency that appears afraid to publicly address its dire financial situation, and to the leadership up on Beacon Hill, which will ultimately be responsible for bailing out the agency. It’s time for both sides to share an honest discussion about the T’s financial distress — and what it means to everyone with a stake in Boston’s prosperity.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.