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Transit issues could help, haunt Gov. Baker’s election hopes

February 24, 2018

BOSTON (AP) — For Gov. Charlie Baker, public transportation could be a path to victory or road to ruin in the November election.

The Republican has staked much of his reputation as a Mr. Fix-It technocrat on dragging the metropolitan Boston area’s creaking subway, bus and commuter rail system into the 21st century.

It was a job thrust upon him just weeks after he was sworn in when a series of brutal snowstorms in 2015 dumped several feet of snow in the area, exposing every weakness in the public transit network, including the nation’s oldest subway system.

Despite efforts to modernize the subway, there are occasional reminders of how daunting the task is.

One of those reminders came Wednesday when a train motor failed on Boston’s Red Line, causing the train to derail during the morning commute. Unnerved passengers said the train bounced on the tracks, causing a window to break and spray glass. No passengers were hurt.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials said about 300 feet of track was damaged. Service was restored about eight hours later.

Democrats hoping to unseat Baker in November seized on the accident as evidence that the Republican isn’t working hard enough to meet his promise to keep the MBTA running smoothly.

“It used to be a joke how old the trains on the #MBTA were, now peoples lives are seriously in danger,” Robert Massie, an environmental activist, tweeted. “This is no joke — it’s time to modernize our rail system and bring it under the control and oversight of the state.”

Jay Gonzalez, a budget official under former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, also took to Twitter to quip: “Charlie Baker: ‘Elect me, I’m a great manager!’ Red Line riders: ‘Every one in three trips is a nightmare on the T.’”

A third Democratic candidate, former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, also pointed a finger at Baker, calling the derailment “further evidence that Gov. Baker is failing and his strategy of no new revenue and privatization is wrong.”

Baker said fixing all that ails the MBTA is no small task — but one he’s already dug into, even as he called Wednesday’s breakdown “unacceptable.”

“For decades, people neglected making the investments they should have been making on the core systems. We have been investing hundreds of millions of dollars on those core system upgrades,” Baker told reporters Thursday.

“In a couple of years from now you’re going to have basically new cars on the Red Line, new cars on the Orange Line, new signals and switches on both systems, new cars and a very different system than the one you have now,” Baker added.

Baker’s transportation promises go beyond shaping up subway lines.

He’s pressing ahead with a plan for a long-sought-after South Coast commuter rail line from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River, something his predecessors had also promised with little to show.

On Jan. 31, the state Department of Transportation flied a draft environmental impact report on the project, another step toward actual construction.

With the filing, Baker said his administration is “committed to following through on decades of promises,” adding that the filing “is a vital step toward bringing reliable, affordable rail service to the South Coast.”

Another political wrinkle for Baker is a proposed ballot question that is making its way to the November ballot.

The so-called “millionaire tax” question that would impose a 4 percent surtax on any portion of an individual’s annual income that exceeds $1 million and use the money to boost education and transportation, including public transportation needs.

Baker has said he opposes broad-based taxes, but is also aware of what an infusion of new dollars could mean to public transportation projects like continued improvements to the MBTA and construction of the South Coast Rail project.

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