Time for 'adult conversation' on Somerville Green Line Extension

By Rep. Mike Capuano

Somerville Journal
June 22, 2012

On June 21st my op-ed on the Green Line extension was published in the Somerville Journal. I am also posting a link to some documents referenced in the op-ed, including the FTA’s letter and Chapter 8 of the MBTA’s New Starts submission. Chapter 8 includes the figures I reference. Table 13 on page 8-48 and Table 23 on page 8-47 are of particular interest.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) just approved the MBTA’s Green Line Extension (GLX) New Starts application. This is the necessary first step in qualifying for federal matching funds. If all goes well, the GLX will qualify for $557 million in federal funds. I have supported the GLX for years and I look forward to its construction.

However, the MBTA’s own application underscores a serious problem. Federal law requires that the MBTA set forth a solid financial plan to operate and maintain both the GLX and the rest of the MBTA system. If that plan is not realistic, the FTA will deny matching federal funds.

The primary concern is that the MBTA is relying on the state legislature being the first in the country to adopt a Vehicle Mileage Tax (VMT). A VMT is paid by car and truck drivers based on miles driven, as measured by a device purchased and installed by the vehicle owner. Under their plan, this single tax would account for 31 percent of all MBTA revenues, generating $1.2bBillion per year for the T by the year 2035.

The MBTA’s proposal also assumes that the state will pay 99 percent of the cost needed to actually operate the GLX, which would be $55 million per year by 2035. This would be the first and only transit line funded by the state and not by the MBTA itself. In addition, the MBTA assumes that the legislature will vote to relieve the MBTA of $1.6 billion in general debt by transferring that obligation to the General Fund.

None of these measures are in place today. If the legislature rejects any of these funding proposals and does not replace them with other sources of revenue, the MBTA will not qualify for that $557 million in federal matching funds for the GLX. Without those federal funds, the project cannot be built as proposed.

The Patrick administration has rightly called for an “adult conversation” on how the state should fund the MBTA. This conversation could take a long time. Even if the GLX gets funding, it may be less than needed. Furthermore, by the time all this gets worked out, new spending priorities could be in place. Some legislators called for cancellation of the GLX one day after the FTA issued its approval. That opposition will grow in light of another assumption in the T’s funding plan — no other capital project will be undertaken by the T for 25 years.

Last October I called on GLX supporters to draft a fall-back proposal in case the MBTA could not fully fund the GLX. Now that the MBTA’s funding plans have been detailed and we know it will be a while until we know for sure how much the T will have, I repeat that call — it’s time to have an “adult conversation” about the GLX.

Let me be clear, we certainly should not give up on the project and we should continue pushing for the entire GLX. However, GLX supporters should simultaneously work to put together a phasing plan based on realistic numbers.

Each phase must be based on realistic funding estimates. Each phase should service as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, within those funding limitations. Finally, each phase must be done in a manner that does not impede advancing to the next phase when funding becomes available. This last criterion ensures that nothing gets in the way of building the entire GLX someday, as promised by the state and the courts.

The first step in all this is to determine how much the state actually plans to spend on the GLX between now and the end of the Patrick administration. Governor Patrick has been committed to the GLX. I trust his integrity and his word but there is no way to know whether the next governor will be equally supportive of this project.

Once we know how much money is available in the short run, GLX supporters should quickly decide on priorities for Phase 1 that live up to the criteria set forth earlier. I suggest that the current proposal does not and, if the GLX does run out of funds, we may not service anyone at all. One option to the current proposal would be to build the main line as far as possible in Phase 1.Any remaining funds could be used to build multi-modal stations in Union Square and other locations. Of course, there are other reasonable approaches. But each proposal must meet the criteria set forth earlier — it must be based on realistic funding, service the most people and allow for the next phase.

The options are clear — either we roll the dice for an all-or-nothing approach and hope the legislature and future governors are committed to the GLX, or we work thoughtfully within the funding limitations we now know are real and get the biggest-bang-for-our-buck in a way that preserves all future possibilities for GLX.