What will save the MBTA – and our region – from the disastrous effects of proposed service reductions and price increases? Over the past few years, in response to the demand for “reform before revenue,” innovative T leadership has significantly improved efficiency, squeezed more out of available resources, and improved communications with the public.
There now seems to be general agreement that the key issue is revenue both for capital and operating costs. The T is not only saddled with the highest rate of debt of any major city transit system, it is also burdened with deteriorating old equipment that is costly to maintain. At a minimum, the T needs debt relief, if not an infusion of capital for upgrading, as well as a replacement for the failed “piece of the sales tax” strategy for supplementing fares as a way to cover operating costs.
What will it take for the state’s political leadership to overcome their fear of provoking anti-tax backlash and provide the needed help? Election year realities are that politicians are unlikely to do anything unless outside groups create enough political space to reduce the risk by fostering a public perception that the situation is a crises, that operations are now better managed, and that new revenues are the appropriate solution. Even then, it will take some courage for Administration and state Legislative leaders to act – the Patrick Administration’s previous “trial balloon” discussion of a possible increase in the gas tax met with so much push back that most politicians became very wary. And we need them to be bold – to call for taking over the T’s debt (as was done when the Turnpike Authority was rolled into the new Mass Department of Transportation several years ago), providing new capital for system upgrades, and creating an adequate flow of operating funds.
We know that the cutbacks and fare hikes will reduce ridership. So it makes sense that the public has been vocally protesting at every one of the open meetings the T has held around the region in recent weeks. Low-income and inner-city residents will be particularly hurt, and their advocates have also been speaking up. Similarly, we know that transit is an essential component of a balanced regional transportation system. So it makes sense that transportation advocates have been sending letters and mobilizing their members. And some local political leaders, most notably Boston Mayor Menino, have been speaking out.
But we haven’t heard nearly enough from the environmental, climate protection, and medical communities about the increases in pollution, greenhouse gases, asthma, obesity, diabetes, and other costly health problems that will inevitably result from a decrease in transit ridership.
And most of all, we haven’t heard from the business community. If cars are the only way for people to get to work or to shop the current levels of congestion will look like a golden age. It will be harder to get employees to move (or stay) here, including the young professionals who are the backbone of our economy. Wages of low- and mid-range workers, particularly important to a service-oriented economy such as Boston’s will have to go up. Former senior T manager, Peter O’Conner says that reducing T service makes as much sense, and will have a similar economic impact, as shutting I-93 each weekend or leaving the snow on Rte. 128 all winter.
“Until we recognize in an explicit and consequential way that the T’s operation, maintenance, and expansion are as important to our economic well-being as our electric, water and sewer, and life-safety infrastructure, as well as the other parts of our transportation infrastructure such as our roads, bridges, and airports, we are doomed to go around and around in this debate about public transportation in an ever-accelerating ‘death spiral.’…we will have, sadly, been the agents of our own economic contraction.” (from Commonwealth Magazine)
Transit users and advocates for a variety of issues have to keep pushing. Their work is absolutely necessary, but unfortunately insufficient. It seems that creating the political climate for action requires the vocal presence of the region and state’s business leadership. If they remain silent, or remain only willing to play a quiet background role, they will have only themselves to blame for the bottom line results of a bankrupt T.
Related previous postings include: