By now you’ve probably heard that the MBTA Advisory Board voted to accept the MBTA’s third scenario to cover their $161 million deficit. This scenario includes a 23% fare increase, minimal service cuts, and a handful of one-time-only injections of cash (good thing we had a snow-free winter). This means that for the next fiscal year, the MBTA’s problem is solved.
But what about next year?
The major issue with this fix is that it’s really just a one-year band-aid. If nothing else happens, we’ll have to go through this entire process again in a year. While I enjoyed seeing so many people passionately expressing why public transportation matters, as a rider I don’t think I want to have to explain why it’s so important each and every year, just to avoid drastic fare increases and service cuts. Public transportation is a public good, and it needs to be funded in a way that doesn’t put it on the budgetary chopping block every budget cycle.
Here are a few things we can all advocate for that will help get the MBTA out of this mess for the long term so we can start shaping it into a system befitting of a world class city.
Raise the State Gasoline Tax:
We’ll get the least popular idea out of the way first. Both the state and federal governments tax gasoline. The primary use of funds generated by the gasoline tax is to build and maintain highways, which means the gasoline tax makes it easier for people to use more gasoline (and generate more gasoline tax revenue). Not the best system. While it’s unlikely we’ll see drastic change at the federal level, we can push for change here in Massachusetts. We shouldn’t be encouraging people to drive more, especially in and around Boston.
If we could raise the state gas tax, we could have a new revenue source for the MBTA and the commuter rail. I don’t have any wild notions that everyone is going to stop driving, but this new funding could help ease the debt burden, and improvements made with the revenue would encourage more transit users. While there is concern that a gas tax would be regressive (affecting low-income individuals more than the rich), this could be negated via rebate programs or tax breaks.
Introduce Congestion Pricing:
From extremely unpopular to just really unpopular. Unlike a state-wide gas tax, a congestion pricing system would be much more local. In its simplest form, congestion pricing is charging drivers to use certain roads in a city or enter certain parts of the city. One of the most successful congestion pricing systems in the world can be found in London. The idea was floated for New York a few years ago, but it got shot down.
Congestion pricing is great because it does a few things. First, it raises revenue that can (and should) be directed towards maintaining and improving the public transportation network. This is important because if we want to encourage more transit users, we need the system to be working smoothly. Second, congestion pricing reduces traffic in city centers. Cars and people don’t mix, so if we want to see active streets in downtown Boston, we need to get the cars out of the way. Finally, congestion pricing is good for people who will still choose to drive. This is because the system will decrease traffic overall, meaning the drivers left on the road are less likely to get stuck in traffic. Congestion pricing is a win for everyone (so long as the money raised is put towards public transportation).
Reverse forward funding (sort-of):
Up until 2000, the MBTA would go to the state legislature, and have them cut a check for however much it costs to run the T that year beyond what they collected with fares, advertising, and other revenue sources. Part of the problem with this system was that it didn’t encourage efficiency. MBTA officials knew the legislature would write them a check for whatever the cost was (within reason). That changed in 2000 with the introduction of forward funding. The new system earmarked a portion of the state sales tax for the MBTA. This was supposed to make the agency self-sufficient, but lower-than-projected sales tax revenue meant the MBTA started accumulating additional debt.
A more clear-cut and less open-ended version of the older approach may be an option for helping the MBTA out of its current mess. The legislature could create a new budget item for MBTA operations costs, and peg the funding to some type of goal like on-time service or cost reductions. This way the MBTA knows its getting funding, but only if it runs a tight ship.
Implement Better Technology:
I’ve covered this one in detail before, but here is the summary: there are technologies available that would save the T money once implemented and would simultaneously improve reliability, frequency, and operating hours. This is a situation where you have to spend money to save money, but if the T wants to be a public transportation system for a 21st century city, this will need to happen and better sooner than later.
There you have it: four ways to avoid fighting another fare increase battle next year. Some combination of the above is necessary to get the MBTA on solid financial footing moving forward, but none of them can really work without two other things failing into place:
- The debt that was put on the MBTA’s books from the Big Dig needs to be taken back by the state. This was debt incurred by the state, not by the MBTA, and the MBTA shouldn’t have to help pay for the Big Dig.
- The MBTA needs to be run as efficiently as possible. While recent years have seen improvements, the agency is still being dragged down by extremely generous pension plans and high wages. We don’t want to see wholesale layoffs, but there needs to be a balance between employee benefits and public benefits.
If we can get these two things done, it might be enough to avoid another fare increase in the near future, but we shouldn’t be trying to fix the T for just one or two years. We should be trying to fix the T for one or two generations.
Getting the debt removed, getting the MBTA to run more efficiently, and some combination of the policies proposed above would let us avoid fighting this battle year after year and would make the T the world class transportation system that our world class city needs.
– Nick Downing, Future Boston Research Coordinator