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The Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor on Tuesday offered up how they would change up the MBTA as the agency faces a safety probe from Federal regulators.
Primary contenders Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, state Rep. Tami Gouveia, and state Sen. Eric Lesser put an emphasis on reconsidering the state’s transit system beyond the MBTA’s Boston-centric approach during a debate hosted by WBUR, The Boston Globe, and WCVB.
As the system currently stands, the MBTA got failing grades from both Lesser and Driscoll — and a “D” from Gouveia.
“I think the MBTA has an ‘F’ right now,” Lesser, a Longmeadow lawmaker, quipped. “It’s literally setting on fire.”
The MBTA has experienced numerous safety problems in recent months, including in May when a man was dragged to his death on the Red Line, and in July, when an Orange Line train burst into flames during the weekday morning commute.
The agency is now the focus of a safety review by the Federal Transit Administration, which has so far issued a series of safety directives the MBTA says it will meet.
In an attempt to improve safety and service on the Orange Line, the MBTA is also shutting down the branch for a full 30 days beginning Friday night. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and MBTA officials say the work is necessary, and the shutdown, though inconvenient, will allow crews to tackle what would typically be five years worth of work in a month’s time, thanks to around-the-clock access.
“The T is definitely not passing right now,” Driscoll said. “We need a public transportation system that’s safe, affordable, reliable, convenient, and that certainly not what’s happening at the T or, frankly, any of our public transit systems.”
Gouveia lamented the T is “crashing and burning.”
“We haven’t had enough of the kind of oversight that voters and residents in our state really deserve and should be demanding,” Gouevia, an Acton legislator, said. “We haven’t made the investments that we’ve really needed to keep up with the state of repair.”
Asked what they would do to get the MBTA back on track, Driscoll and Gouveia both spoke about the need to create transit systems that connect residents within their own communities or that better function as a whole.
“We need to have some sort of transportation czar or someone who’s really looking at the system as a whole,” Gouveia said. We have a bunch of mini transportation systems that don’t always have the same funding sources, don’t have the same kind of oversight.
“Oftentimes, we don’t have ways to address the first mile and the last mile [of transit trips],” she added. “I did pass legislation just before COVID hit that would allow us to make some investments through bonding to make sure that we are addressing the first mile, last mile issue so that we have a fully connected state with east-west rail, with north-south rail, with Cape Flyer, etc.”
Driscoll boasted how Salem has launched a public rideshare service, the Salem Skipper, to help make the city more interconnected.
“Not everyone is trying to get in and out of Boston. Many communities lack the type of transportation in and around their regions,” Driscoll said. “As we move forward, we need to invest in transportation that recognizes the connections it has to housing, to climate, to [the] workforce.”
Lesser, a Longmeadow lawmaker, has long pushed throughout his career for the east-west rail project, to provide more frequent rail service between Pittsfield and Boston through Springfield and Worcester.
But on Tuesday, Lesser placed a greater emphasis on making sure the state’s transit system is safe, which he said is “the most urgent issue in front of us.”
He quickly rattled off a list of initiatives he would take on, including bringing back a fare refund program.
“I think that’s important to help shift the culture and it needs to be much more of rider-centric culture at the T, including a rider bill of rights,” Lesser said. “I worked with Attorney General (and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful) Maura Healey on a student loan bill of rights. We would work on a rider bill of rights.
“And finally, there needs to be more transparency,” he added.
Here are a few other takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:
Soon after state lawmakers voted to override a veto from Baker and pass a law to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, the state’s Republican Party set out to launch a ballot initiative to try to repeal the law through the ballot box.
Driscoll, Lesser, and Gouveia all expressed strong support for the law.
“If you’re not for this law because of moral issues, I hope you support it for basic public safety,” Driscoll said. “Having licensed drivers folks who are registered and insured is a plus for our community.”
Lesser vowed that if he advances from the Sept. 6 primary, he would work to fight any ballot initiative that challenged the legislation.
“About 16 states or so have done it. It’s actually reduced traffic accidents,” he said. “It’s reduced hit and runs because it contributes to people being safe on the roads, taking the driver’s tests, getting the licenses, and being part of the education that goes into getting a license.”
When the two Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, former state Reps. Leah Cole Allen and Kate Campanale, were asked about the law during a similar debate on Monday, both raised concerns.
Canpanale said the law is “rewarding bad behavior” and poses problems with the state’s RMV for easily identifying licenses held by citizens.
When the Democratic candidates heard those rebuttals on Tuesday, all three denounced the criticisms as Republican talking points.
“That just strikes me as very xenophobic and racist to assume that people are here for any other reason than they are fleeing countries that they have had major economic struggles, major civil wars, and part of that is also just the international impasse of the geopolitical landscape,” Gouveia said.
A lightning-round question may have revealed the largest split in Tuesday’s debate between the three candidates: Whether Massachusetts should legalize happy hour once again.
“I say no,” Gouveia said. “There are a lot of restaurants that are pushing back against happy hour coming back to our state because of the impacts that it would have on their business and competition to the bottom of, you know, offering free and reduced drinks.”
However, Lesser, noting that a provision for happy hour was included in recent state Senate legislation, said he supports bringing back the option.
“I will note that there are important considerations around drunk driving and addiction that have to be handled,” he said. “But many other states have it, and I think there’s a way to do it responsibly.”
Driscoll said she thinks the issue should be left up to cities and towns to decide.
“This is an issue where local autonomy can really make a big difference — the type of community you have, the folks that might be partaking in something like this, and the impacts that might have on the ground,” she said.
Last month, the Globe reported how the Leadership for Mass Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee is supporting Driscoll’s bid in the September contest.
Among the super PAC backers is Christopher W. Collins, who serves as the finance director for the Republican Governors Association’s Executive Roundtable and has a track record of donating to GOP candidates nationally, according to the newspaper.
Notably, campaigns cannot coordinate with super PACs. Driscoll’s campaign told the Globe at the time that it is not involved with the organization.
“We remain 100 percent focused on growing our grassroots campaign, which has been funded by people across the Commonwealth, and building a broad coalition based on shared values and vision for our state,” Juan Gallego, Driscoll’s campaign manager, told the Globe in July.
The super PAC did not come up in Tuesday’s debate until closing statements, when both Gouveia and Lesser alluded to it.
“There are real differences in terms of the kinds of support that some of us have, ….You got to ask yourself, voters, why would a Super PAC want to get involved in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor?” Gouveia asked.
Lesser said both he and Gouveia “are raising money for our own campaigns.”
“The only thing that went undiscussed in this debate is a super PAC that The Boston Globe has reported on that is getting potentially millions of dollars in undisclosed donations from a Republican,” Lesser added, closing out the debate.
Driscoll gave her closing remarks before her two opponents raised the subject.
Watch the full debate:
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