Intellectual dishonesty and the MBTA

The bacchanal of charges, counter charges, accusations, and recriminations concerning the MBTA’ s highlight-reel non-performance  over the last several weeks is redundant. In sum, you would be right to conclude that a lot of people had a lot of years to get a job done and failed to do it, and that failure haunts the region in numerous ways.

Of course the public is told that this crisis is the equivalent of a “Sputnik moment,” a blessing in disguise, a wake-up call for elected officials to redouble their efforts to reimagine and modernize the MBTA.

Let’s hope so.

One is reminded that after Winston Churchill’s electoral defeat in 1945, his wife tried to cheer him up. “It might be a blessing in disguise,” she told him. “At the moment,” he replied, “it seems quite effectively disguised.”

A cynic might be forgiven for insisting that the recent MBTA crisis reminds us that there is much is to be said for intellectual dishonesty. She would argue that part of the criminal neglect of the T is that we are much more likely to enjoy an adequate supply of the public goods and services that are so vital to the commonwealth’s welfare if we can convince ourselves that someone else is paying for them. Whenever the cost is coming out of our own pockets, we inevitably try to cut corners, do things on the cheap, and ultimately deprive ourselves of much that we really need.

One definition of intellectual dishonesty is ignoring reality when it interferes with what we want to believe about the way the world works. This is what government enterprises do when they pretend that operating and maintenance are not part of the true costs of providing a public service and are not truly accounted for in the price charged for a public good.

The public is as much to blame for this as elected officials who underestimate true project costs.  People’s expectation of receiving more services from government than they are willing to pay for leads to those officials to provide numbers that have all the accuracy of a Brian Williams anecdote. Taxpayers want more for less and elected officials lack the courage to tell them flatly there is no free lunch.

For example, when former Gov. Deval Patrick announced a nearly $1 billion federal grant to finance the MBTA’s $2 billion Green Line extension, little attention was paid to the fact that the commonwealth still has to foot another $1 billion in construction costs. Still further there is little if any discussion at all of how the project’s life cycle operating and maintenance costs will be covered.

People seem to have forgotten that public transit has to live in the real world and the biggest real-world concern these days is how to pay for it. In simple terms, this comes down to a choice between taxes or user fees – fares in the MBTA’s case.

The deterioration of the MBTA is testament to the consequences of deferring maintenance to disguise the true cost of providing the service. In the T’s case, maintenance has been deferred for decades.

The public is misled about the true life-cycle costs of public transportation assets. It is being economical with the truth to continue to believe you can pay for the overhaul of the MBTA or any other public provider of public transportation without either charging fares that reflect real life-cycle costs or increasing taxes to include operations and maintenance.

Hopefully, elected officials will finally catch the joke, end the intellectual dishonesty and truly embrace the hard work of cutting the MBTA’s financial and managerial Gordian Knots beyond the mere telling of words.

originally published: February 21, 2015

Print Friendly, PDF & Email