As reported in the Patch, the Mass. Department of Transportation is proposing catastrophic rate hikes and service cuts to MBTA bus, van, and train routes to balance its budget in 2012. If either of the alternatives offered by the MassDOT are implemented, it would represent a colossal failure of public policy that would disproportionately impact seniors, people with disabilities, and minority communities and increase our total transportation costs, traffic congestion, and pollution harmful to people and the environment.
The MBTA's massive budget deficits - the largest of any city in the country - are not the result of mismanagement or low ridership. They were legislated into existence in 2000 when the Massachusetts legislature stopped paying for the MBTA out of its general budget, and tied its income to a share of the state sales tax. At the time the legislature assumed that sales tax income would not fall, that the MBTA's costs such as energy and health care would not rise, and probably that unicorns would rome the earth (see Boston Magazine's excellent, succinct backgrounder from last year). In addition, the legislature shifted $1.67 billion in unrelated debt from Big Dig borrowing onto the MBTA's budget, and at the same time mandated that the MBTA significantly expand services in order to offset the impact of increased car ridership from the Big Dig.
Solving a manufactured budget deficit with massive fee hikes and service cuts is foolish for many reasons, but the first is that it will increase the cost of transportation by increasing the number of car drivers. In a 2010 report, the APTA estimated that Boston drivers switching to public transportation would save on average $12,362 per year, but many of the costs of driving are hidden. Public transportation is the definition of a public good: even when it will save individuals money and is more efficient than private transportation, it won't be provided by the private market because its benefits are mostly unremunerated.
Second, the proposed MBTA fee hikes and service cuts seem to single out seniors and residents with disabilities, while the harmful side-effects of increased car usage will disproportionately affect minority communities living in the city core.
Currently,seniors pay about 1/3rd the full cost of CharlieCards. The two proposals advanced by the MassDOT would increase this to 1/2, or to 1/2 the cost of a CharlieTicket, which is considerably more expensive than a CharlieCard. All told the high-fare proposal would increase CharlieCard prices for seniors by 175% - compared to 40% for everyone else; the lower-fare increase proposal would increase CharlieCard prices for seniors by 87.5% - and 20% for everyone else. In addition, both proposals would terminate the Route 41 'JP Loop' bus, which has been preserved in the past as a way of maintaining JP seniors' access to food and retail in the neighborhood.
The proposed reforms also aggressively target THE RIDE, the MBTA's service for residents unable to access other forms of public transportation due to physical or mental disabilities. Both proposals would cut THE RIDE services to the minimum required by the national Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Currently THE RIDE charges a flat $2 fare for all one-way commutes within THE RIDE's jurisdiction - which covers all areas serviced by the MBTA's other modes of transportation. The high-fare scenario would hike this to $4.50, while the lower-fare increase would hike it to $3. In addition, THE RIDE would only service residents within the ADA-mandated 0.75 miles of bus stations or rapid transit stations, and charge an even higher fare for service outside of these buffer zones: $12 per ride under scenario 1 and $5 under scenario 2. All told, fares for THE RIDE would rise by 138.8% under scenario 1 (compared to 43% for all other modes of transportation), and by 71.9% under scenario 2 (34.7% for everyone else).
Lastly, the increase in car usage anticipated from the cuts would lead to increased traffic congestion and air pollution, but not all communities would suffer equally from this degradation of living conditions: minority communities are projected to see five times higher increases in traffic congestion than non-minority communities, and six times higher increases in carbon monoxide air pollution.
Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told the Boston Globe on January 11 that these two proposals "were designed to prompt a conversation," and "[n]either is a firm or concrete proposal." Let's hope so. No savings plan should shift costs and transportation barriers from younger and more able-bodied residents onto seniors and disabilities with disabilities. However, this is not a savings plan, this is a plan to shift efficient transportation spending from the public budget onto less-efficient spending by household budgets. High housing costs are already a barrier to economic growth in the Boston area. Gutting our public transportation system will only exacerbate this problem.
The state legislature needs to step in and assume the MBTA's debt or provide it with a dedicated tax revenue adequate to meet the service obligations and Big Dig debt that the state saddled it with a decade ago. As taxpayers we will pay less - in money, in exposure to pollutants, and in opportunity costs from slower commute times - by publicly rescuing the T than we would reverting to a far less equitable, more expensive transportation system that edges riders towards private modes of transportation.
Make sure to attend the MBTA's inocuously titled 'Fare & Service Changes Public Meeting' in JP on February 1 to provide feedback!
- These views are my own, and not those of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.
- Impact estimates, unless linked to another source, are taken from "Potential MBTA Fare Increase and Service Reductions in 2012: Impact Analysis," Central Transportation Planning Staff, December 30, 2011.