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DC's 24-Hour Rail Shutdown: A Warning to Boston Commuters?

A new analysis of MBTA data finds the agency is $600 million short for the most basic repair goals over the next five years. (Adam E. Moreira)
A new analysis of MBTA data finds the agency is $600 million short for the most basic repair goals over the next five years. (Adam E. Moreira)
March 21, 2016

BOSTON - Last week's nightmare 24-hour shutdown for rail commuters in the nation's capital for emergency maintenance could be a sign of things to come for commuters in the Commonwealth.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) says it is at least $600 million short of funds for the most basic repair goals over the next five years.

And Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, says his organization finds the projected shortfall doesn't even take costs into account to comply with federal mandates for safety and accessibility, improving the signal system, or expanding capacity on existing routes.

"I think what you're seeing in D.C., when their system had to shut down for a day, is an important warning signal," says Berger. "That when you fail to make crucial investments in maintaining a system, that ultimately you're going to pay the price."

The unprecedented safety inspection shutdown in D.C. identified several badly-damaged electrical cables that could have sparked fires or even forced a system shutdown.

Berger says it would make sense for the Commonwealth to start paying for these kinds of maintenance issues now, because they'll only get more expensive, especially when they result in shutdowns.

He adds it isn't only rail commuters who suffer. At current funding levels, those who drive to work can expect to see the number of structurally-deficient bridges rise from 400 today to more than 700 in a decade. He says there is no quick or easy fiscal fix.

"Massachusetts has cut taxes, particularly for high-income folks fairly significantly, which has drained the resources that could have been used to make these investments," says Berger. "And I think it does require a serious conversation about, 'Is there a fair way to raise revenue that could fix our transportation system, so that we can build a stronger economy and so that people's daily lives can be better?'"

Berger says deteriorating roads cost the average motorist in Massachusetts $483 a year in additional operating costs.

It's part of the group's new fact sheet, Maintaining an Effective Transportation System, that can be found on the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center website.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - MA