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4 takeaways from our special Mass Transit Panel Discussion

Posted by James E. Rooney, President & CEO, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on January 27, 2016

The Chamber’s latest Government Affairs Forum featured a special panel discussion – “Fixing & Financing our Broken Public Transit Systems: Lessons from Across the Country” – with some of the top leadership of major transit systems including Craig Stewart of New York City’s MTA, Joe Casey the recently retired general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, Mortimer Downey the chair of the board of Washington D.C.’s Metro system, and Joe Aiello of the MBTA’s Finance and Management Control Board.

This highly experienced panel shared their insights on the factors that can make or break a transit system such as funding, long-range financial planning, quality of management, talent recruitment and retention, public trust, and positive pressure from the business community. The key takeaways:

1). A well-functioning transit system is a priority for regional economic growth and competing on the global stage. When asked about how a transit system like the MBTA can fall into crisis, the panel pointed things like chronic lack of investment, poor management, and a culture not conducive to implementing preventative measures as contributing factors.

2). Attracting, retaining, and training talent to build a strong management team is vital to moving a system out of crisis and giving it a sustainable future. Joe Aiello pointed to the fact that some of the cost overrun issues plaguing the Green Line extension came from a lack of staff training for the new contracting model. As for attracting the best leadership to run our systems, I asked what public transit general managers were paid in other parts of the country a $400,000 figure was raised, which is far above the MBTA GM pay of $160,000. Ask any major sports team or Fortune 500 company how they build success and they will tell you it’s about investing in top talent.

3). Widening sources of mass transit funding: New York is currently making news as Governor Cuomo announces major infrastructure enhancement projects. Craig Stewart of New York’s MTA talked about the current and proposed expansion projects for Manhattan’s subway system and said that finding new, innovative revenue sources such as value capture need to be explored for these projects. Mortimer Downey added that there were districts in the Washington D.C. Metro area that supported a regional tax for specific transportation projects that are now delivering significant economic impact. The panel agreed that the main areas of investment in a transit system are achieving and sustaining a state of good repair, meeting ridership demand, and supporting strategic expansion to encourage economic development.

4). The business community plays a critical role in mass transit. The panel unanimously agreed that having a strong business community voice demanding the best transportation system possible and linking it to job creation and the economy is crucial for public and legislative support. Joe Casey told the audience that the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce makes it clear to government that businesses look for two things when deciding where to locate: a strong workforce, and the ability of the current transportation system to move people to jobs.

From listening to our members, I know that transportation is a top policy issue for the business community in 2016. In fact many of you are angry about the current state of our transportation system – especially when it comes to the T – and how it affects the economy and your workforce. I can assure you that the Chamber will continue to be a strong voice on this issue and today’s panel discussion was just the beginning of our work to improve our transportation infrastructure.