Paul McMorrow

For MBTA, ‘nuance’ means ‘broke’

By Paul McMorrow
August 5, 2011

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WHEN STATE transportation officials announced the latest setback in the perpetually-delayed Green Line extension this week, they blamed a new, “deeper and more nuanced understanding of the constraints and limitations’’ of the rail project. It’s difficult to see how nuance and depth of understanding have anything to do with the troubled transit expansion, though. The only real obstacle faced by the Green Line extension - conceived in 1991, and now scheduled to debut by 2020 - is the unwillingness of federal transit officials to pick up the tab for the expansion of a transit system that’s going broke.

If the MBTA’s budget weren’t a ticking time bomb, the state wouldn’t be facing any high hurdles in running Green Line trolleys from Cambridge to Somerville and Medford. But the T’s budget is spiraling out of control. Its subway and bus system is crumbling. Since the T can’t even afford to maintain the system it already owns, there’s no way federal transit officials will spend hundreds of millions of dollars making the system bigger and more expensive to maintain.

The legally-mandated Green Line extension presents the state with a simple choice: Either fix the T’s budget, or pay for the $900 million Green Line stretch without federal funds. These two stark options should have been front and center when state officials announced yet another delay in the project’s timetable. They weren’t. Instead of laying bare a billion-dollar problem, the T chose to talk up difficulties in engineering and eminent domain takings - relatively minor issues, compared to the problem of actually paying for the trolley line’s construction.

When it comes to extending the Green Line, the issue isn’t whether to fund an expansion project, but how. The state first committed to running Green Line cars to Somerville and Medford in 1991, as part of an environmental mitigation package that enabled work to begin on the Big Dig.

The highway project’s environmental permits were tied to mass transit projects that would bring eastern Massachusetts into compliance with federal Clean Air Act standards. The Conservation Law Foundation had to sue to force the state to follow through on its Big Dig transit commitments; in a 2007 settlement, the state and the T agreed to complete the Green Line’s northern expansion by 2014. Last year, the target became 2015. Now, it’s somewhere between 2018 and 2020.

The T’s financial woes are driving the recent delays. The agency can’t build the Green Line extension until it can pay for the project, and the T can’t get the increasingly stingy feds to pay for the Green Line until it fixes its budget. But for political reasons (see: Aloisi, James), the sorts of measures that would revive the T’s flagging bottom line have been nonstarters on Beacon Hill.

The longer the T has played triage with its budget, the worse its budget has become. After closing a $130 million gap this year, the T is facing a $160 million deficit next year. Over the next four years, the agency is projected to rack up $900 million in cumulative deficits. And it’s not just the T’s worst-in-the-nation debt load that’s to blame. In 2016, when its annual deficit hits $330 million, basic operating costs will eat up nearly 90 cents of every revenue dollar available to the T.

In April, outgoing transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan turned heads when he told a group of Boston businessmen that the T likely wouldn’t be able to secure federal funds for expansion projects because of its budget woes. After initially scrambling to downplay Mullan’s remarks, the Patrick administration has tiptoed toward a debate about funding the soon-to-be-bankrupt transit agency. The new, extended Green Line timetable appears built to give the administration the breathing room to have such a debate. It just doesn’t want to say so yet.

Although the governor has held back his political capital, he has been spending actual capital. The city of Somerville is counting on the Green Line extension to unlock millions of square feet of new development opportunities in under-utilized industrial neighborhoods. Construction on the first of these developments, a 184-unit apartment project located on the site of an abandoned box factory, began in earnest last week. The $52 million Maxwell’s Green development received a $490,000 state transit-oriented development grant last year; now all the project needs is the transit line it was supposed to have been designed around.

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