Let’s Talk About the MBTA

Before his election to the State Senate earlier this year, Will Brownsberger served as the State Representative for the 24th Middlesex District. I worked closely with him as a member of the Cambridge delegation to the State House, and if you’ve met Sen. Brownsberger, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that he’s a serious and thoughtful legislator. Among the priorities we share, Will and I understand the importance of public transit and we’re both committed to fully funding the MBTA.

Charlie rides the MBTA

So when Sen. Brownsberger published an op-ed regarding the MBTA’s funding challenges, all of us in the State House took notice. Before we dive into the details of Sen. Brownsberger’s op-ed, let’s review the situation:

  • 37% of people working in Boston get to work by using the T. In the communities of Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Everett, and Malden, at least one in ten people get to work using public transit.
  • The MBTA is facing significant long-term funding challenges. Last year, I voted with my colleagues for a one-time transfer of funds from the state to the MBTA to keep T service at its current level, but we all knew the fix was temporary.
  • The current funding streams for the MBTA have proven to be insufficient for the level of service we’ve come to expect. There are a bunch of reasons for this—notably, the decline in sales tax revenue due to the struggling economy—but to get the T back on a solid financial footing, all options need to be on the table.

This is a complex issue with a number of potential fixes: for example, a marked increase in ridership across the system would go a long way toward closing the current funding gap. Cutting services could also narrow the funding gap, but at the expense of our neighbors’ ability to get to work. Similarly, finding new sources of revenue through open-road tolling, a reapportionment of sales tax proceeds, or levying a regional tax on T riders might get us closer to a balanced budget. All of these proposals present both benefits and drawbacks for the Commonwealth’s commuters.

There are a lot of innovative ideas out there, but the one thing we can’t do going forward is maintain the status quo. Some people are calling for a maintenance of current service levels and not touching revenue and complaining about the MBTA’s fiscal situation. But the numbers simply do not add up. As Bill Clinton might say, this approach simply defies arithmetic.

So, the challenge of fixing the T’s balance sheet becomes a question of priorities. Here are mine:

  • I believe that service cuts are almost always more harmful than revenue increases. I would rather see all of us pay a little more than make public transportation more expensive and more inconvenient for working families.
  • I believe that we as a Commonwealth should encourage more people to use public transportation. More T riders means cleaner air, less traffic, downward pressure on gas prices, and a healthier MBTA.
  • I believe that if we are going to raise revenues, we should do so in the least regressive way possible. Some self-described progressives have promoted a Parking Space Tax (PST), but, again, the arithmetic doesn’t lie: a PST would force residents of densely populated Somerville to pay four to five times more than residents of less-densely populated Newton. I can’t understand how anyone who calls themselves a progressive could ever advocate for a tax that forces working families to pay more than the wealthy, but that is indeed what some people are proposing.

Ideally, fixing the MBTA will be part of a statewide, comprehensive transportation solution, one which fixes our roads, bridges, and harbors along with our buses, stations, and rails. I will advocate for this comprehensive approach, but I’d also like to point out one idea in Sen. Brownsberger’s op-ed that caught my eye.

Drawing on a piece by the Globe’s Derrick Z. Jackson, Sen. Brownsberger brought up the idea of a congestion fee for drivers entering downtown Boston. Congestion fees are already in use in major cities such as London and Stockholm, and they’ve been proven to work. The idea is simple: when you drive into Boston, you pay a small fee. If you live within the congestion-fee zone, you’re largely exempt from the fee (in London, for example, 90% of your fee is waived if you live within the zone). The effects of this fee are pretty straightforward: commuters will be encouraged to park outside the city and take the MBTA in, thus driving up ridership, cutting congestion in the city, improving air quality downtown, and reducing consumption of fossil fuels.

As I said before, all options need to be on the table. But the congestion fee proposal is both proven and innovative. We here in Massachusetts have been ahead of the curve on a number of important issues, and a congestion fee gives us another chance to lead. The devil, as always, is in the details, but I believe a congestion fee could be a key component of a long-term fix for the MBTA.

What do you think? We need lots of good ideas to meet this challenge, and I would love to hear yours in the comments below.

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