Transportation fiefdoms a roadblock to shared goal

The MBTA faces a $161 million shortfall for the coming year. As hard as closing that gap is, doing it the right way is an even more difficult task, because it requires understanding the impact of fare hikes and service cuts on the overall transportation system, not just the T.

Roadways, transit systems and railroads each have their own unique technologies and operating traditions. As a result, transportation officials generally view each as its own functional enterprise. According to their catechism, it is only logical that each mode should have its own funding, planning and construction programs.

But transportation customers don’t care about the physical distinctions between modes. They care about moving themselves and their goods door-to-door in the fastest, most efficient manner. If a particular trip requires using more than one mode, so be it.

Customers are also unlikely to care if integrating all modes into a single, seamless system of regional transportation requires using revenue generated by one mode to help support another. It’s the results that count.

Done correctly, the results of integration would include lower costs from each mode being used for the trips it’s best suited for; less congestion; better mobility for those with fewer transportation choices like poor, elderly and disabled customers; and cleaner air.

Every transportation mode has the same overall goal: to maximize mobility for people and goods. As such, each should operate under a single institutional framework for funding, planning, construction and maintenance. Professional managers view surface transportation through the customer’s eyes and understand that the system’s common purpose transcends technical or operating differences.

It is scarcely a secret that the silo approach to transportation remains far more common, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the management professional’s approach better serves the public.

While there may currently be some cross-subsidizing of public transportation, continued fragmentation prevents existing capacity from being used as efficiently as possible. The challenge is to weave together the various modes in a manner that provides customers with reliable and timely service at a price that makes economic sense to both the customer and the provider.

Achieving that goal will require Massachusetts leaders to ask whether the proposed MBTA fare hike is consistent with the strategic objectives of the commonwealth’s 2009 transportation reform legislation, which merged transportation agencies and promised savings on the order of $6.5 billion over 20 years from the resulting operating efficiencies.

Just as important as the savings, reform was designed to improve customer service through the integrated management of surface transportation. Put another way, the commonwealth can now price the entire transportation portfolio rather than simply pricing each individual mode.

As they target the MBTA’s budget gap, state leaders should not lose sight of how their decisions will affect the larger transportation network. That requires asking questions like how the proposed fare increase would impact system goals, how it could help provide customers with better value and whether it would lay the foundation for better pricing and strategic decisions going forward.

Getting to the balance that will best serve all the regional transportation networks might require transportation policy makers to compare the impact of increasing the commonwealth’s fuel tax, which has not been raised since 1991, against hiking MBTA fares and cutting transit service.

With the implementation of reform, state transportation managers oversee a portfolio of transportation assets. The MBTA’s budget gap must be closed, but wise stewardship requires that those managers do so with an eye toward the impact on the larger system as they make decisions about fare hikes and service cuts.

originally published: March 31, 2012