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Once in a while, government produces a morality tale so irresistible you could mistake it for a Jimmy Stewart movie. Such a tale is playing out right now starring Doug Foy, Governor Romney's secretary of Commonwealth Development.
During the waning days of the Dukakis administration, Foy, then president of the Conservation Law Foundation, worked with administration officials to craft the mother of all unfunded mandates -- a multibillion-dollar series of 14 new transit projects purportedly designed to mitigate the environmental impacts of the Big Dig.
Three consecutive administrations built the projects they couldn't avoid and pushed as much of the headache as possible into the laps of their successors. But time has run out on this game of musical chairs and the person left standing is none other than Doug Foy.
Remarkably, most of the projects -- including the Washington Street and South Boston legs of the Silver Line and commuter rail extensions to Newburyport, Worcester, Plymouth, and Scituate -- are either in operation or under construction. Slow-growing Massachusetts was the only state to lose population in the last two years. But since 1988, the MBTA has expanded far more than any other transit system in the nation.
Rapid expansion has come at a staggering cost. About one-third of the MBTA's operating budget goes to pay debt service, the most of any major American transit system. Fares and other revenues cover less than 30 percent of costs, the lowest cost-recovery ratio among the nation's major systems. The diversion of funds from system preservation to expansion has hurt service by reducing the resources for maintenance, which is one reason why ridership has declined in recent years despite expansion.
The stated reason for the projects was air quality. But as David Luberoff, executive director of the Kennedy School's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, has argued, the results have been modest at best. Modeling done by state officials found that all the projects combined would yield less than 1 percent of the reductions in volatile organic compounds (which are linked to smog) required by the 1990 amendment to the federal Clean Air Act. One study concluded that it cost over 100 times more to remove VOCs from the air via transit investments than by requiring vapor control systems on gas pumps.
Luberoff demonstrated that the keys to achieving substantial emissions reductions have been cleaner cars, auto emissions testing, reformulated gasoline, and vapor control systems -- not new transit lines.
Three of the required expansion projects remain: extending the Green Line to Medford, extending the Blue Line to meet the Red Line at Charles Station, and restoring trolley service on the Arborway Branch of the Green Line. Total construction costs would be nearly $1 billion. Foy has shown courage in rejecting two of them. The more direct ride to the airport that was part of the rationale for the Red-Blue connection has been achieved by the Silver Line while an increase in traffic along the Arborway since buses replaced trolleys in 1985 has made trolley restoration impractical.
The administration has announced plans for an enhanced Green Line extension that includes two branches.
Nonetheless, Foy's former colleagues at CLF have sued once again in an attempt to enforce the original agreement. Zealots urge the Commonwealth to contribute more toward MBTA operations, overlooking the fact that the 2004-25 Greater Boston Transportation Plan already dedicates about 60 percent of total funding to transit, even though only about 15 percent of area commuters use it.
Advocates, undeterred by expensive challenges in education and healthcare, argue further that the Commonwealth should take over all or part of the MBTA's debt. Even if it did, expansion would still put even more pressure on the T's fragile operating budget, since each new line covers only a fraction of its costs.
With Massachusetts losing population, our economic growth lagging the national average and T ridership declining, it defies logic to believe we can continue to support the nation's most aggressive transit expansion program.
To those of us who ride it regularly, an MBTA not pushed to the brink of financial ruin by mandated expansion would mean cleaner stations, smoother rides, and newer vehicles. For the T, it would mean more riders and a healthier balance sheet. Isn't it ironic that we find ourselves looking to Doug Foy to make this vision a reality by atoning for his past transgressions and taking on the forces he helped unleash.