Each week for the remainder of the campaign, Belmont Patch will be providing a "Question of the Week" to the candidates for the House of Representative's 24th Middlesex District – Jim Gammill, Tomi Olson and Dave Rogers – that will run on Tuesday mornings.
Below is the question and the candidates' answers.
The MBTA's Interim General Manager Jonathan Davis said while the authority will attempt to keep the level of service at current levels, he made it clear that revenue from all sources – riders and the legislature – must be increased for this this to happen. As the state representative from three communities that rely on mass transportation, would you be willing to ask 24th Middlesex District taxpayers to pay more through a tax increase on income or from other areas such as increasing gas or sales taxes? If not, how would you make up the revenue/expenses gap or do services need to be cut?
Dave Rogers, Democrat
The link between a strong transportation network, economic growth, and quality of life is of increasing importance in our highly inter-connected world. Time and again, all the evidence proves that investment in building and maintaining transportation systems yields an enormous return over time. Yet, here in Massachusetts – for far too long – the critical needs of maintaining the current system and building a world-class transportation network for the 21st century have been put on the back shelf. We need not only to keep the 74 and 78 buses, the Red Line, and every part of our local and state transportation network running smoothly, but also make necessary investments to modernize the system.
The problems with the T are well-documented, including a cumulative $5.2 billion debt and an operating deficit of $161 million for this year alone. A staggering percentage of the resources allocated to the T must go to debt service. Rather than continue to come up with band aid solutions like we did this year, a comprehensive approach to the T's systemic problems must be implemented.
We should not immediately turn to taxation to fund the MBTA's challenges. One idea worth exploring is the possibility of a public private partnership similar to the plan recently announced in Chicago. Also, allowing the Regional Transit Authorities to develop their own funding mechanism would free up state resources to invest in the MBTA. While not generally a supporter of casinos, I would argue that if and when they are here, we should invest the revenue from them into transportation and infrastructure.
If these ideas are not adequate to address the MBTA's problems, then I would be open to exploring other ways to develop a dependable revenue stream for the T. Those ideas might include a minimal increase in the gas tax or a modest congestion fee on motorists who use highways at peak hours. However, in these instances, I would insist that any new revenues be sequestered in the budget and specifically dedicated to funding the T.
Jim Gammill, Independent
I have a more ambitious "ask" in mind for the voters of the 24th Middlesex district: I am asking that we use the upcoming debate on funding the MBTA to think hard about how we provide government services in a world marked by amazing technological innovation.
There are two reform initiatives needed – re-structuring operations in response to technological innovation, and de-leveraging the financial profile of the state. The fact that the MBTA is facing an immediate crisis gives us a special opportunity to seriously consider both of them.
Technological innovation forces us to re-think how we organize our work. Computationally intensive algorithms are more and more prevalent in all industries, including transportation. These innovations create significant productivity gains. Even though they disrupt familiar workplace structures and routines, we should not try to stop these changes. Instead, we must embrace them, as they will bring safer and more efficient transportation systems to both customers and employees.
My hope is that the legislature next year will support a deep and reasoned dialogue between the MBTA and its employees about these issues, and that out of this, there will be a framework in place that can support the long term viability of our transportation systems through large-scale productivity gains.
The other needed reform is on the financial side. The MBTA annual budget must recognize the full costs of compensation, including long term retirement and other benefits. The legislature should also engage in serious discussion about switching to a retirement plan for state employees that is similar in structure to that provided to federal government employees. By not doing this, the state is significantly over-leveraged and carrying more financial risk than it can prudently manage. And by not trimming its financial risk, it is more difficult to get new funding for necessary capital investments in the transportation system.
I would encourage my legislative colleagues to support the MBTA in negotiating breakthrough agreements along these lines. This is not the time to find a band-aid to get through another year. This is the time to do the hard work needed to put in place a plan for long-term viability and success.
Once this is accomplished, other negotiations within the state legislature are needed to reach a final resolution.
Public transportation systems provide such significant common benefits to our communities that they are among my highest priorities for receiving state aid. Here is an outline of the issues that will determine exactly how much and from what source the aid will come from.
• Fares do not come close to covering our full operating costs yet, and current levels are not out of line with fares in other major US systems. I would not be advocating fare decreases without major productivity gains. Over time, I expect to support increasing fares as other expenses rise.
• The MBTA already receives a portion of the state sales tax. While this piece could be put in play in any complete overhaul of the transportation financing puzzle, I am content to let it stand as is, not increasing nor decreasing it.
• The final closing of the budget gap will then have to come through the regular state budgeting process. Like most legislators, I am always looking for ways to find more room in the existing budget by trimming costs and cutting low priority programs. But I recognize that is not likely to be enough.
• In this context, I do favor raising the state gas tax up to a level comparable to those set by our neighboring states with the exception of New Hampshire. I would expect that my colleagues from the districts away from the MBTA would want to ensure that some of the proceeds from the gas tax remained in the areas of the state where it was collected, and that strikes me as a reasonable accommodation.
• If after all of the above steps are taken and all feasible program cuts have been made and the overall budget of the state remains out of balance, then additional tax revenues will, by definition, be required. My preference with respect to that is first, to reduce tax expenditures, and then second, if necessary, to use the income tax to close the remaining gap.
Tomi Olson, Republican
Residents of Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge need and deserve good public transportation. The closeness to Boston and the access to public transportation are two important reasons why many of us live in proximity to the T routes. Cutting service or holding ridership hostage are two political ploys.
Before we assume that raising taxes, as MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis suggests, is the only way to keep the MBTA on track, it is necessary to take a more complete look at the problem. Mr. Davis has only been Interim GM for a year and will soon be succeeded by Beverly Scott presently of the Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority who was very recently awarded a three-year contract with an annual salary of $220,000 plus benefits.
This Spring the MBTA increased its fares by 23 percent. Despite that increase the MBTA reported on Sept. 30 that its ridership has increased. In that report the Massachusetts DOT indicated that for August 2012 weekdays averaged 1.256 million passenger trips.
Additionally, as reported, Massachusetts Auditors from Suzanne Bump's office "examined the T's books from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2011. Auditors found that the T reported that $123.8 million in fare box cash receipts were deposited, yet the automated fare collection system recorded over $225.5 million in fare box cash receipts."
While the Interim GM Mr. Davis places his confidence in the current mechanized system, I would require the new GM Ms. Scott to conduct a comprehensive investigation. This inquiry should identify inefficiencies by examining management structure and costs prior to making any suggestions of tax increases or loss of routes. For now the increased fares coupled with increased ridership should resolve the problem.