Transit and Politics

The big news yesterday was that MBTA general manager Beverly Scott resigned. Her resignation came after the T shut down train service for a day following record breaking snow fall. A day on which she held a “barn burner of a press conference” in which she defended the T.

Now, for those of you not from Boston, a little history.

The T is in a lot of debt. About $9 billion in debt, including interest.

Now, that doesn’t just come from poor book keeping. The state’s Central Artery Project – eg, “the Big Dig” – focused on improving highway transit, most notably rerouting 93 and putting part of it underground. The highway was falling apart and not able to support the volume of traffic.

What does this have to do with the MBTA? Well, as part of the Big Dig, the state is legally obligated to provide certain environmental justice mitigation. That is, if you’re going to make it possible for more cars to be on the road, you’re obligated to make improvements which mitigate the environmental impact. And not just because we’re all going to die from global warming, but because living near highways is actually really bad for your health.

So, the state was obligated to make transit improvements. And in 2000, Massachusetts passed¬†$3.8 billion in debt from transit improvements off to the MBTA, granted them 1 percent of the revenue from the state’s 5 percent sales tax, wished them well and told them to balance their book.

That didn’t work.

Fast forward to December 2012 and Beverly Scott starts as General Manager. She inherits the oldest transit system in the country and the most indebted transit system in the country.

Frankly, I don’t know what made her take the job in the first place – there’s no single person capable of “turning the T around.”

So I’m not surprised that with nearly “a Gronk” of snow – that’s over six feet – the system had to shut down to pull itself together.

But Scott’s resignation in the wake of the closure wasn’t all together surprising. As Peter Kadzis put it the day before her resignation, “My gut tells me this is more about ritual than politics. The ritual of offering a sacrifice, in the form of Scott, in the name of moving forward.”

So that’s how we’re managing our public transit system now. Ritual sacrifice.

And while Kadzis says it’s not about politics, it seems to me that it’s all about politics.

If it was a sacrifice, it was a political sacrifice. It may not have been driven by a Democrat v. Republican showdown, but it was about human and community interaction in the public sphere. It was all about politics.

It probably didn’t help matters that Scott was appointed by a Democratic Governor and that the Republican Governor who know holds office was part of the administration that saddled the T with the debt in the first place. But more fundamentally, it was about a need to blame someone, to have someone become the embodiment of all that went wrong.

It’s like a slightly less disturbing version of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

Personally, I liked Scott. I thought she was on fire in her press conference and I was impressed that she was so bold in explaining the T’s problematic history. But regardless of how you feel about her, politics seems like a poor way to manage our transit.

As Beverly Scott said in that final press conference:

If there is a silver lining, please can we be talking about what are the long-term …yes, the T needs to be efficient, it needs to push itself, but this is not just about cutting costs.¬† You can cut every cost you wanted over here and that is not going to wind up taking the place for what has to be systemic, planned, serious, bold reinvestment in terms of this doggone transportation system. Not just to wind up keeping it where it is, but to wind up making it be what it can absolutely be in terms of being a modern, top-notch, serving-with-pride transportation system.

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