Tom Menino, the self-styled urban mechanic, held the office of Boston Mayor an historic 21 years by making the city work for people, at least for most people. Charlie Baker, whose favorability ratings as governor of Massachusetts reach easily into the 70’s, wants to make state government work. Transportation will be a key test of whether he can do it.
Democrats seeking to defeat him in two years (if they can find someone willing to take him on) will try to pin on him a lack of vision, but that’s a slim reed on which to hang a campaign. Grand visions and florid rhetoric aren’t a substitute for everyday government workability.
Twenty days after Baker took office, it started to snow. And it continued to snow that winter until we had a record 110 inches. The Mass. Bay Transit Authority was profoundly dysfunctional. Today, as New England Council President Jim Brett observed, MBTA now stands for “Mr. Baker’s Transit Authority.” Baker now owns the system, embraces the challenge and is committed to make the trains run on time, not by some Mussolini-type dictum but by fixing its long-neglected infrastructure.
This is of more than academic interest. A recent study by A Better City shows why improving the movement of people is crucial. The study projects 17 percent population growth over the next 15 years, which could put 80,000 more cars on the road. Rush hour (a misnomer surely) could last all day. We have to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit. But is it even possible?
The Governor told a New England Council breakfast Thursday morning that 75 % of investments in a five-year capital plan is going into existing infrastructure. Signals, power systems, tracks, railroad ties – everything associated with core system is ancient. Shockingly, some signals on the Green Line were installed in 1915. Elsewhere in the country, where signals and switching technology are current, you can move cars through in two- minute intervals versus five minutes here. Closing that gap means you can move twice as many people at rush hour.
Baker knows dealing with the nuts and bolts isn’t as sexy as fancy ribbon-cuttings. “It’s all boring,” he says, conceding that he may get called non-visionary on transportation “a lot” over the next few years. But he’s passionate about getting the job done. He knows that, given demographic trends, we need more T riders, but he also knows achieving that requires the T to be more reliable and actually get people where they want to go. His audience applauded enthusiastically, and he added, “It’s incredibly important that we get this stuff right.”
Meanwhile, he’s also doing the grunt work of increasing efficiency, reducing unanticipated worker absence and abuse of overtime. Better administration, he says, has added the equivalent of 15,000-20,000 work days.
Baker knows the Commonwealth needs to spend two to three times more than what historically has been spent on core infrastructure. The question is: when he has wrung out all available savings and that’s still not enough, will he be willing to seek more revenues, even possibly increasing the gas tax and earmarking some for mass transit? Baker has a lot of political capital in that 72 percent favorability rating. To what extent will he spend it?
Two predecessor governors, Mike Dukakis and Bill Weld, are actively advocating for the North-South rail link connecting North and South stations, effectively connecting Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont through Massachusetts to the Northeast Corridor. I asked Governor Baker whether he was on board with their proposal and whether he agrees with Dukakis that a planned South Station track expansion wouldn’t be needed if trains could continue through with such a link. Not so much, it seems. Baker has agreed (with “the guvs”) to do the environmental impact review on the rail link, noting it would be a follow-up to Romney administration work several years ago. ( Back then, it was thought to be an $8 billion project that might serve only 20,000 local area commuters.) New technology is now available, which could change previous studies.
Baker awaits an updated cost-benefit analysis before staking out a position, but he’s made it clear he’s not going to sacrifice the benefits of investing in the core system that moves a million people for any more visionary project that could benefit significantly fewer people. There’s something that’s very comfortable about his approach… at least for now.
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