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Commentary: Charlie And The Ailing MBTA

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a news conference in Boston Friday, where he named a seven-member panel of experts in transportation, economic development and municipal planning to come up with a fix for the troubled MBTA. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a news conference in Boston Friday, where he named a seven-member panel of experts in transportation, economic development and municipal planning to come up with a fix for the troubled MBTA. (Elise Amendola/AP)

“Do your job.” Gov. Charlie Baker gets the benefit of the doubt on clearing snow and its twin problem, the lack of service on the MBTA. He’d only been in office for a month before a series of snowstorms struck.

According to the new WBUR poll, only 5 percent of residents in Greater Boston hold him responsible for the T’s snowbound troubles. But 81 percent say it’s up to him to fix it. Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach, has a saying that he drums into his players: Do you job. Don’t worry about what your teammate is or isn’t doing, do your job. People believe it’s now Baker’s job to fix the T.

Risky business. Baker also has to worry that his beating up on the highest ranking, most visible black woman in state government, Beverly Scott, could undo his efforts during his campaign to make gains with minority voters. Until announcing her resignation as T general manager, effective April 11, she had been on TV at least as much as Baker or Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Baker changed his tune on Scott. First he was angry, then understanding; finally he admitted it’s not just the manager’s fault, it’s the weather and ancient, inadequate equipment.

Kickin’ the can. To close a budget gap, Baker wants to cut $14 million from the T budget and says it won’t affect the T’s performance. That’s absurd and, as he liked to say, it’s kickin’ the can down the road. The T needs more than better management. It needs more money, but Baker ran for governor as a no-new-taxes manager. When he talks about the T being saddled with debt, he doesn’t mention that he put that debt on the T when he was Gov. Bill Weld’s chief secretary for finance. He shifted the debt to the T as part of his plan to finance the Big Dig. Expanding T service — something MBTA-bashers like to cite as a cause of the T’s current troubles — was also part of that same Big Dig deal.

Mr. No Kickin’ creates commission. Baker just announced a new seven-person study commission to look at the MBTA’s problems and report to him. They have until the end of March, which is a short kick — but little help to impatient and abused T riders.

If Martha Coakley had won the gubernatorial election, the current conversation about the T’s finances would be very different. The governor wouldn’t be looking like a human pretzel, trying to twist logic to avoid the need for more revenue. We would’ve found a way to get more money into mass transit — by special assessments, tax-exempt revenue bonds, raising the seemingly sacred gas tax, increasing tolls on the Turnpike or upping parking and landing fees at airports. There isn’t a big city transit system in the U.S., and possibly the world, that pays for itself — they all need subsidies. We’re no exception.

Treat us like adults. Baker seems stuck on his campaign promise not to raise taxes. His claim that he can cut $14 million from the T and not hurt its performance is silly on its face. Putting the T into receivership is one “solution” proposed by conservatives but there’s no appetite for it on Beacon Hill. The fact is, for 20 years the state has been under-funding mass transit.

"Weed whacker." As a candidate, Baker called himself a “weed whacker,” someone who would dig into the details to fix problems. The weeds are 6 feet thick choking the T. The governor needs to swing a big scythe just to reach the weeds. One thing we’ve all learned is that the T is part of our regional transportation system, and when it’s not working, it affects everyone — not just T subway, rail and bus passengers, but all drivers, truckers, seniors on The Ride, harbor-boat commuters, the Postal Service and Fed Ex and UPS deliveries, to name a few. When the T is ailing, we all feel the pain. And it’s up the governor of the commonwealth to take action, not cling to campaign promises that are unrealistic and unresponsive to our problems.

Dan Payne is WBUR's Democratic political analyst. Hear Dan and our Republican analyst, Todd Domke, discuss more on Friday's Morning Edition:

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