Wednesday, September 12, 2007

New revenue sought, but what about new ideas?

A front page article in today’s Boston Globe covers hearings of the Joint Transportation Committee on Beacon Hill. The hearings discussed funding options for repairs to Massachusetts transportation infrastructure. The article does mention that privatization options are being considered by the Patrick administration, which the Herald noted yesterday. As is so often the case in the Globe, article ended with the most interesting quote and left important questions unasked:

MBTA officials estimate that they would have to spend at least $550 million a year for the next 20 years to achieve a systemwide[sic] "state of good repair," [MBTA General Manager] Grabauskas said at the hearing. Instead, the MBTA spends about $450 million to $470 million a year to maintain its infrastructure, he said.
"One of the depressing aspects of my job is to realize that even spending half a billion dollars a year . . . we're barely keeping pace to keep the level of maintenance that we have today," Grabauskas said at the hearing. ". . . I need to continue to spend just to maintain the level of, in some cases, disrepair that we have today."
Then a curious journalist might have asked:
  • How does the MBTA measure the effectiveness of its maintenance expenditures?
  • How does that effectiveness compare with similar organizations in the public and private sectors?
  • How do MBTA maintenance practices compare with these other organizations?
  • How does the priority of spending over $1 billion to extend the commuter rail network to Fall River compare with adding more parking at existing rail stations, additional maintenance, or more frequent rail service?
Providing more revenue to the same transportation agencies for maintenance so that they can simply do more of what they are already doing is not an innovative approach to this chronic problem. We already spend lavishly for public sector transportation services, and doubtless will need to spend more. But can we spend more wisely rather than just throwing “new revenue streams” at what may be dysfunctional, unproductive, and high-cost public sector agencies performing outdated work processes?

The Globe article is headlined “New revenue sought for roads, bridges”. What about new ideas and new processes for roads and bridges? These are at least as important as new revenue to everyone who tries to think beyond the status quo.

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