Transit and Accountability

I recently got into an argument on Twitter with Marc Ebuna, who blogs at TransitMatters about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, greater Boston’s public transit agency, and accountability. Twitter is not the forum for this sort of debate, so I’m using my blog to flesh out my arguments, because I think that accountability is important for transit.

I said that as a government agency with a monopoly the MBTA is accountable to neither voters nor customers and he said that because it’s a government agency it’s accountable to voters because they elect the governor and legislators who are ultimately in charge of the state.

That is both a textbook example of American democracy and a microcosm of its problems. Theoretically, as voters, we are supposed to be avble to examine our government, our representives and officers and weigh their performances and their proposals against a body of facts and theories which are not in dispute and cast our votes based on the result of that careful and objective process. If that’s what voters did, making a reasoned trade-off between competing priorities, I would accept that the MBTA is accountable. But the theory of representative democracy is not bourn out by the practice.

In so far as voters behave rationally, to their satisfaction, they make decisions based on personal and ideological biases, loyalties, instinct, spite, charisma or any of a thousand other things. Not only that, the decisions are often made with incomplete information. The number of things the Commonwealth of Massachusetts does, the number of agencies, departments, committess, task forces, grants, interstate compacts, public-private partnerships and so on and so forth is vast. Tracking them all is more than one mind can handle, especially considering that the mind is going to be occupied with living all of the time. Newspapers don’t follow all of it and part of news editing is making decisions about relevance — and much of state or federal government is irrelevant to the majority of people most of the time. Even when the facts are complete, their interpretation is rarely undisputed. Finally, elections tend to happen all at once — at any given time, one is likely to be asked to vote on several different complex governments. 

Democracy may subsist in voting, but does not consist of it.

To be perfectly blunt, the MBTA does not have to explain or justify its decisions to the people and even assuming it does a good job informing riders about public meetings or requests for comment, which it does not, they still don’t have to take those things into account. Public meetings are by and large formalties where bureaucrats tell the public about decisions that have already been made. Approval is neither sought nor required.

Instead, the MBTA is subject to political incentives. For instance, they agreed to illegally take on the state’s debt from the Big Dig in exchange for dedicated funding from sales taxes collected from the towns and cities it opperates in. In practice, this means that maintaining services nobody uses is more important than improving services people do use. Similarly, federal grants are provided for starting new lines, but not improving and repairing existing ones.

Ebuna was correct that much of the MBTA’s problems comes down to its poor funding, but even if the state were funding it at Transport for London levels, the people would still have a vested interest in knowing what they were doing with it. I think more regular public forums, like the one on the Green Line I covered back in June (and met him at, actually) would be a good place to start, possibly in addition to a more active role from the MBTA Advisory Board.




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