MBTA safety effort will require money, LaHood says

Boston Statehouse

Photo: Boston State House

SHNS., BOSTON (WWLP) – Making safety the top priority throughout the MBTA will be a costly venture, a former U.S. transportation secretary who participated in the months-long review of the T’s safety said, and he suggested that Gov. Charlie Baker seek out new money from Washington, D.C. policymakers.

“The T is safe. But the T can be safer, like all forms of transportation,” Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who served as President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary from 2009 to 2013, said. “And if you want your transportation to be safe, and you want it to work efficiently, it takes money. It costs money to do that.”

Money for the MBTA and transportation more broadly has been a hot topic on Beacon Hill recently. Lawmakers are gearing up for a transportation revenue debate in the House early next year and an $18 billion transportation bond bill (H 4002) — which includes $5.7 billion for the T — has been under consideration by the Joint Transportation Committee for months.

During a press conference to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations Monday morning, Baker made mention of the $50 million he’s requested for ongoing “accelerated infrastructure” repairs at the MBTA on a few occasions. That money remains hung up in the supplemental budget that the House and Senate have been unable to resolve for nearly two months. If lawmakers are not able to iron out their differences by Wednesday afternoon, the comptroller is going to move $1 billion in surplus funds, including the money eyed for the T, into the state’s rainy day fund and Baker will have to make a new request for the money.

“Today’s report adds a new sense of urgency to the Legislature to pass the $50 million that we filed for last spring in our supplemental budget request to the Legislature. This money is designed to fund many positions that are key to staffing the T’s expanded capital program,” Baker said. He added, “The resources need to be there for the T to be able to do both of these things well at the same time. I’m kind of hoping that some time in the next day or two that’s going to get resolved. If it doesn’t we’ll file it again in January and try to get it then.”

Asked if the $50 million he requested will be sufficient to allow the T to meet its priorities while also putting a new emphasis on safety, Baker said, “It was certainly the number we believe is the number we needed at the time.”

He added, “If we need additional resources going forward, we’ll figure it out.”

The governor did not directly answer when asked if the safety review released Monday changed his mind at all about whether the T needs additional revenue from the state on a regular and committed basis.

“Well, the T gets additional revenue every year from the Legislature through the increase that comes with an increase in the sales tax, which is its primary source of funding. The budget gets developed on an annual basis. We will be working on a filing for House 2, which will come out in January. We’ll spend a bunch of time talking to the T about this and about these recommendations and if we think they need additional resources we’ll factor that in.”

LaHood said he has worked with public transportation agencies in New York and Chicago since leaving the federal government and thinks the MBTA has a good case to make for a boost in federal transportation funding.

“When you have an organization that’s as old as this, with infrastructure that’s aging, it’s going to cost money. But when I look at what the kind of leadership that the governor has shown here and in the vision that he has, I believe some of the resources can come from Washington just as they have done for other organizations, other places in the country where there’s a leader at the top that says, ‘we need resources because safety is our number one priority,'” LaHood said.

The former secretary said “you can’t imagine how many governors came to see me” when he served as secretary and said he told Baker that he should bring his entire transportation team to meet with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and to detail how the T plans to address the safety concerns highlighted in the report while also improving service for riders.

“My point in telling him that is there’s a lot of resources in Washington. And, you know, this T has a good plan and has good leadership and is well-focused,” LaHood said. “And I think the secretary will recognize that and know that the money will be well-spent.”

Though Baker has frequently challenged the Trump administration on policy, he has spoken highly of Chao and credits her with signing off on the $1 billion in federal funding needed to complete the Green Line Extension project. In May, Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh met with Chao during a trip to the capital to pressure Congress and the Trump administration to invest in housing, transportation and the environment.

In addition to possibly filing a request for more MBTA money with his fiscal 2021 budget — which is due to be filed by Jan. 22 — the governor said Monday that he is also going to present his vision for the future of MBTA oversight next month.

Originally created in 2015, the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is set to expire next summer. But Baker said Monday that he will file “FMCB successor legislation” in January that incorporates some of the recommendations of the Safety Review Panel.

“First, the panel recommends that the FMCB have a seat that focuses purely on safety and operations, I agree. Second, the panel has pointed out the frequency of the FMCB meetings, which by statute must meet for 36 sessions per year, take too much time away from MBTA leadership and staff to work on day-to-day operations. I think we can all agree on that too,” Baker said. “The FMC Board was put in place in 2015 to tackle a myriad of issues and they’ve done a terrific job. At this point, the board should meet less frequently so that management can focus more fully on improving operations at the T.”

The governor said his legislation will create a new safety-focused seat on the board and will reduce the frequency with which the board must meet. It’s unclear whether Baker intends to put forward his plan for the next phase of T oversight as part of his budget or as standalone legislation.

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