MBTA Fare Increase Displays Need For Lasting Reforms

By now, most people who ride the T have heard about the possibility that fares will be increased and service will be cut.

Let me begin by saying that nobody is happy about this. There are systemic problems with the way that the MBTA is funded that have slowly plunged its budget into crisis. After years of creative fixes by MBTA and Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials, MBTA riders are now being asked to help close the T’s budget gap.

In January, the MBTA proposed two possible plans to raise fares and cut service. Proposal 1 relied primarily upon fare increases to close the budget gap. Proposal 2 relied upon service cuts. Both proposals would have drastically cut commuter rail and ferry service.

MassDOT and the MBTA then held 25 public meetings and a handful of hearings to gather input on the proposals from residents. The public meetings that were held attracted a total of 5,800 attendees, a record according to MassDOT. Many will remember that the meeting held at Cambridge City Hall was overflowing with people. Of those who reached out to the T, 80% opposed reductions in service and 24% opposed fare increases.

Since the conclusion of the public meetings, MassDOT and the MBTA have been able to find a number of places in their finances where they will be able to reduce their budget deficit. While these are not permanent solutions, they are important short-term fixes. These include the transfer of snow and ice removal surplus to the MBTA, the reduction of debt service payments, and the decision by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance  to allow the MBTA to use its offices in 10 Park Plaza rent-free this year.

Among these deficit-reduction measures are a number of fixes that will require immediate legislative action.  These include transferring funds from the Massachusetts vehicle inspection trust fund (a fund which sets aside inspection fees for efforts to reduce air pollution), and seeking $5 million in reimbursements from Medicaid for services offered by the RIDE.

These proposed solutions will reduce the T’s deficit from $159 million to $84 million. This deficit reduction has allowed the MBTA to propose a third, alternative scenario to the two it proposed in January.

Under this proposal, which was announced on Wednesday, fares will increase 23% overall. These changes would require subway riders to pay $2 instead of $1.70, and bus riders to pay $1.50 instead of $1.25. A monthly bus pass will increase from $40 to $48, and a LinkPass (monthly bus and subway pass) will increase from $59 to $70.

While the fare increases under this plan are steep, they are less than the proposed fare increases in either of the proposals that the T released in January. The number of cuts to service has also been drastically reduced from that found in proposals 1 and 2. The MBTA estimated that were it to implement proposal 1, roughly 9.2 million trips would be lost per year. Under proposal 2, which focused on cuts to local and suburban bus service, the T estimated that 37 million trips would be lost. Under the scenario that was released yesterday, 1.2 million trips, or .3% of the total number of annual trips, would be lost.

The service reductions that this proposal includes will cut four bus routes and weekend commuter rail service on the three lines that are have the lowest ridership. There will be no cuts to service in Cambridge or Somerville.

This is clearly better than what was proposed initially, and I applaud the T for considering customer input and returning to the drawing board to find a better solution.

With that said, I understand and empathize with the thousands of people in the MBTA service area whose lives will be made harder. There will be an impact on the environment from more cars on the road. Our efforts to encourage the use of public transit will be hurt. Economic development, which is dependent on the ability of residents to traverse the region, will suffer.

And there can be no question about it: for many people who ride the T, a fare increase will be one more hardship for them in an economy that has been harsh and unforgiving for many years. Massachusetts may be recovering faster than other states, but that fact is little comfort to those who are struggling.

The next step is for the legislature to find a comprehensive, long-term funding solution for the MBTA that will be adequate and sustainable for years and decades to come.

This solution must include changes to the debts that are currently on the MBTA’s balance sheet. Among these debts is what is often referred to as the T’s “big dig debt”. This debt was incurred by the MBTA to construct various transit improvements that were required as environmental mitigation for the central artery project. These mitigation projects really don’t belong on the T’s balance sheet, and moving them off would save the T $100 million in debt service payments every year.

Any legislative solution must also include new revenue for the MBTA that does not come out of the pockets of the people who need public transit the most. I have been a long time supporter of a graduated income tax policy in Massachusetts that puts more money in the pockets of the people who need it. Working-class people will continue to struggle until everyone pays their fair share. Transitioning to a more progressive tax policy would provide more funding for not only the T, but for all of the essential state services that are being constantly scaled back in the face of budget deficits.

As the conversation continues, I will remain one of the strongest voices in the legislature for the interests of T riders. I am disappointed that the T’s budget problems have not been addressed sooner. I am saddened that it has come to raising fares in order for the T to pay its bills. The reality of the situation is that right now, raising fares is necessary. I think my colleagues in the state house would agree, however, that we can’t wait to pass legislation that will make it unnecessary to raise fares again for many years to come.

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