Having a car in Boston is a hassle. Between trying to find a parking spot, trying to not get towed, and all the other costs associated with owning a car, it’s no wonder why many people who live in the city opt to travel by other modes of transportation: car sharing with Zipcar, bike sharing with Hubway, walking, or taking the T.
Of those options, the MBTA is used most frequently by far. And with our national and state economies still working to get out of the current recession, the MBTA provides a much-needed service at a very reasonable rate. For $59 a month, you can ride as often as you want on any bus route and/or subway branch. That’s just about $2 a day. The MBTA gives residents of Boston and 174 other communities access to jobs throughout the region that they would not have otherwise.
That’s why it’s so distressing when we hear news about rate hikes and service cuts. Jonathan Davies, the MBTA Acting General Manager, recently announced that coming next Spring, we should all expect reduced service and higher fares, the result of which will be public transit riders paying more out-of-pocket for less service. Unfortunately, that is the nature of living in an area in which the public transit agency is strapped for cash.
This brings up one big question: if the MBTA is so poor, how and why is it expanding service past Lechmere and into Somerville and Medford along the Green Line? To answer that question in full would take more space and time than we have here, but it goes something like this: the Green Line Extension is one of a number of projects tied to the Big Dig as mitigation for the increased vehicle traffic and air pollution the project brings to the area, especially to Somerville. The Green Line Extension has been decades in the making, and its completion date now hovers around 2018. The state and the MBTA are legally required to build the extension as part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Conservation Law Foundation against the state.
The MBTA is stuck between a rock and a hard place: it has to build the Green Line Extension (which is, by the way, a very worthy project and one that will dramatically improve public transportation access for huge sections of Somerville), but its budget issues are such that while it is growing in size, it must shrink in scope. And it is shrinking at a time when more people than ever need an inexpensive, reliable way to get to and from work.
So can anything be done? The easy answer is yes, but it is a very qualified yes. The MBTA bears the burden of having to finance both the construction and operation of its projects. It is still working to pay off debt from work associated with the Big Dig, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. One of the best ways to maintain service levels while continuing to grow would be for the state to take on the role of financier for capital costs (expansion, station upgrades, etc.) while the MBTA would be responsible for the operational costs (drivers, security, regular maintenance, etc.). But that would really just shift the debt from a state agency to the state as a whole, and it likely wouldn’t see much support form communities not served by the system.
At the end of the day, our best option is to push our elected officials at the local and state level to work together to come up with new, innovative ways to fund public transportation that don’t place the burden solely on the shoulders of the people who need it most. We need to get to a place where the MBTA is inexpensive, reliable, runs more frequently and with longer hours, and serves more of the Boston metro region.
But until we get the finances in order, we can’t get there from here.
– Nick Downing, Future Boston Program Manager