GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 7, 2013

Report urges stepped-up push for transit reform

By Michael Norton
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — While backing the addition of new revenue sources to pay for transportation system investments, a new report commissioned by two major business trade groups says public support for new revenues, which could include higher taxes and fees, will depend on implementing a series of reform recommendations focused on improved performance, planning and reporting.

The report, prepared by transportation experts for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, calls for implementation of basic systems governing agency performance, transparency and communication with the public, on-time project delivery, and asset and project information systems.

The report is based on the work of the University of Wisconsin-based State Smart Transportation Initiative, which includes members from 19 state transportation departments. Its recommendations were drafted after a review of state documents and feedback from dozens of Massachusetts transportation officials and business officials.

“Massachusetts transportation agencies lack sufficient revenue to fulfill their critical role in advancing the Commonwealth’s economy,” the report said. “Beacon Hill recognizes that reality, but as lawmakers consider proposals to fund the Massachusetts transportation system, they and the public alike correctly want to know that revenues going to transportation agencies are and will be correctly spent.”

The report recognizes MassDOT’s progress implementing reforms called for in a 2009 law and “major advances in integrating a formerly disjointed transportation bureaucracy.” Reviewers singled out the following initiatives:

A $2.9 billion Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) that allowed MassDOT to use design/build contracts to speed the project development process and permitted the department to reimburse utilities for the work they undertook on the bridge projects;

A GreenDOT policy, announced in 2010, that “pushes MassDOT’s managers and staff to innovate in order to provide transportation more sustainably.” The agency “is at the forefront in moving into the post-Interstate era, stressing multimodalism and system preservation, rather than more lane-miles”;

Reducing toll collector salaries to reflect comparable market salaries;

A “customer focus on users of the system” by MassDOT management;

Installation of Intelligent Transportation Systems signs on highways and next-train signs on transit.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles, while cutting staff, is conducting more transactions online and has awarded a contract for a $78 million project to overhaul its 25-year-old IT system, the report notes;

Combining service units like human resources, legal, information technology, civil rights and communications to save money and improve coordination.

The reviewers urged improvements in areas where reforms have not been fully implemented and other changes to reflect the best practices of other states. Among the recommendations:

With four transportation secretaries since 2008, reviewers determined a lack of stable leadership as “a major reason why change has not occurred as fast or as substantively as desired.”

The 2009 law required MassDOT to adopt and track performance measures and it has created an Office of Performance Management and Innovation. But MassDOT “has not yet achieved a full set of agency-wide measures, acknowledging that it has only begun making real progress in the last 12 months.”

Regarding transparency and planning, “several of the participants in the assessment process felt that MassDOT has not been overly successful in developing capital plans, project information systems and project selection criteria that are available to those outside the organization.” Reviewers added “there was concern expressed about the process for selecting project priorities, and for the ability of MassDOT to show that it is delivering projects on time and on budget.”

The report’s authors said it “was surprising to see so many operations and maintenance functions being paid out of the debt-financed capital budget,” calling that practice “very unusual among state DOTs.”

Review team members from Pennsylvania and Maryland found that MassDOT “did not seem to be taking full advantage of resources available through the I-95 Corridor Coalition,” which the report described as “a major information-sharing venue not only for tolling technologies and processes, but for traveler information and data collection systems as well.”

The report calls for a reworked capital project information system, saying it would be an “immediate, relatively inexpensive method of increasing accountability and transparency. The current system “falls far short of what is needed to inform decisions and assure stakeholders” and features descriptions of project statuses that “are often dated, and they do not explain delays nor show whether projects are on time or on budget.”

Reviewers also determined “the level and type of oversight currently exerted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Division Office can largely be traced to concern over the Central Artery project” and notes that many staffers “still vividly recall the bad press and resulting pressures on the agency.” Also, MBTA service and investments are “constrained by the debt placed upon it by the Commonwealth’s commitments for transit mitigation to allow Central Artery project to go forward.