I have to admit that the huge pushback from the public regarding the MBTA’s proposed fare hike and service reductions is heartening. Sometimes it takes something this drastic to really mobilize people.
The first thing I want to stress is that it is extremely important that we build off of all of our angry Tweets and Facebook status updates and do something concrete. There are a huge number of public meetings scheduled for public input and those of us opposed to the proposals need to turn out in big numbers. If you rely on the T for work or pleasure, contact your state rep and state senator and tell them we need them to fix the system and fix it now.
The second thing I want to stress is that I’m not mad at the MBTA. It’s not their fault. Well, it’s not entirely their fault anyway. Twelve years ago, the means by which the MBTA was funded underwent a pretty significant change. Up to that point, the T would collect fares and then they would ask the state to write them a check for whatever costs revenue from fares and other sources did not cover. This was not exactly the best system, and it did not encourage the T to be all that fiscally responsible. So starting in 2000, they implemented what came to be known as “forward funding.” The goal was that eventually the MBTA would be able to finance its operations without the state covering whatever the amount would be. The primary funding source for the MBTA would be a percentage of sales tax revenue collected in the state. At the time this made sense, as few people in 2000 could have predicted the Great Recession.
Another change was the shifting of some debt from the Massachusetts Highway department to the MBTA. This debt was related to the Big Dig and mitigation projects that the state agreed to implement to offset the negative effects of that project. This debt combined with the lower than expected revenue from the state sales tax led to the current situation in which debt payments made by the MBTA are chewing up a larger and larger portion of the annual budget. This is why the MBTA also has multi-billion dollar backlog of needed maintenance and repairs. It doesn’t have enough money to make those repairs because it has to pay so much money each year towards its debt and this has caused a budget gap to open up which has grown in recent years. Until this year the MBTA was able to restructure its debt in ways that reduced payments and stretched payments out further down the road, but this year there were no more tricks in the bag.
Again, I don’t begrudge the T. Was there a time not long ago when the MBTA was essentially a patronage office for politicians from Eastern Massachusetts? Yes, but in the era of government transparency and accountability, those days are becoming a thing of the past. In recent years the MBTA and its management have undertaken a number of progressive policies aimed at improving service to all of its customers. Most notably, the MBTA was one of the first transit agencies in the country to release its real-time data for buses and subways (not the Green Line, but that’s a post for another time) to developers. This is how we got things like NextBus and CatchtheBus and the dozens of other MBTA-related apps. It didn’t cost the T anything, and as a frequent bus rider, I can speak to how much easier it is to trek across the city when you know the next bus is coming in 2 minutes even though the schedule says 20.
It’s really easy to get mad at the T. It just gives us too many chances to find its flaws. But we need to keep in mind all the times when we don’t think about it all because it’s doing exactly what we need it to do. Should we be upset? Absolutely, but we can’t just lash out wildly and expect we’ll get what we want. We need to be organized and unyielding. Write your elected officials. Check out groups like the T Riders Union and Students Against T Cuts.
I’ll reiterate a point I made a couple days ago, which I will again say is based entirely on a hunch: I don’t think the MBTA wants either of these proposals, but they realized that in proposing them and highlighting how bad things would need to be under the current system for them to remain solvent that these proposals would get everyone involved in a conversation about how to fix the T in the long term.
So keep up the conversation. Don’t let the MBTA off the hook, but know that the problem isn’t entirely the MBTA’s fault. And most importantly, get actively involved in the process!
– Nick Downing, Future Boston Program Manager
- Schedule of Public Meetings on the Proposal
- Find Your Legislator
- T Riders Union
- Students Against T Cuts
- MBTA Fare and Service Proposals Overview
- Fare Increase and Service Reductions Impact Analysis