Running a Tighter T

Lately, I’ve found myself having to explain that I don’t work for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)—the public corporation that runs Greater Boston’s T—far more often than usual. I don’t imagine that it’s my appearance that leads so many Bostonians to suspect this employment. But as someone in favor of the MBTA’s recently announced fare hikes, I might as well be wearing a T patch on the side of my button-down blue shirt.

When the MBTA announced early this summer that, starting in 2007, subway fares will rise from $1.25 to $1.70 per ride, and bus fares will jump from $0.90 to $1.25, the organization surprised few; commentators had been anticipating just such a move from the deeply indebted MBTA for years. Likewise, it has hardly been a surprise that opposition to the fare change has sprung up across the city. Yet the virulence of this opposition is, in many ways, beyond what could have been expected. Groups and publications including The Phoenix and the T Riders’ Union have accused the MBTA of everything from price gouging to “transit racism.” To these knee-jerk protesters, I must either be crazy or on the MBTA’s payroll to support the MBTA’s new fare structure.

Yet I am neither (I hope). A close examination of the MBTA’s proposed changes reveals a reasonable and well-justified fare increase that actually serves the public interest. Far from an example of racist disregard for low-income riders, the MBTA’s new fare structure will in fact benefit those who truly depend on the system by taxing occasional riders and streamlining multimodal transit. On the whole, the Authority’s revised system of charges represents both a thoughtful and a progressive model for public transit pricing in a mid-sized city.

Although many have challenged the necessity of a fare increase, there are few who can reasonably dispute that the MBTA is facing a budget crisis of gargantuan proportions. Like public transit agencies across the country, the MBTA is reliant on sales taxes, in addition to the fares it collects and the fees it earns from advertisements, to fund its operating budget. Unfortunately, it has seen revenues fall radically short of projected levels, and has had to rely on stopgap bonds from the state government to stay afloat. Adding to the challenge is the 27 percent of its budget the organization must devote annually to debt service payments. All of these factors together make for an annual $70 million budget shortfall.

To compensate for its humungous and growing deficit, the MBTA needs to do one of two things: cut costs or raise revenues. The only way for the agency to effectively accomplish the former would be to eliminate routes and offer otherwise reduced services, or to curtail its employees’ wages or benefits. Both would be disastrous for the citizens of Boston. The MBTA has sensibly opted to take the revenue-raising course, so that it may maintain or even improve upon current levels of service.

In terms of bolstering its income, the MBTA has few options. Sales taxes could be increased, but this option rests in the hands of the legislature, not the MBTA, and it is almost certainly politically infeasible. Although the organization could improve its advertising, this accounts for less than 10 percent of total revenue and cannot bridge the gap between income and expenditures. Only streamlined and increased fares can allow the MBTA to maintain its current services without hurting its employees.

Although fares will jump substantially when the new fare structure is introduced in 2007, a ride on the T will still cost less than one on most other cities’ mass transit systems. Even after these increases, MBTA fares––currently among the lowest in the country—will still be at or below fare levels in other major and mid-sized cities including New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.

The most commendable element of the MBTA’s proposed fare increases isn’t their relative moderation; it’s their remarkable fairness. While the cost of the bus alone will rise by $0.35, and the subway by $0.45, bus-to-subway transfers will be included in the price of a subway ride, meaning that the cost to those who commute downtown and need to take a bus to get to a subway station will actually fall from $2.15 to $1.70. Many of Boston’s lowest-income residents fall in this category; these system users—far from being discriminated against by “transit racists”—will actually pay less for their daily commute starting next year. Additionally, the price of monthly and yearly bus/subway “combo passes”—the passes currently used by most urban intermodal commuters—will similarly decrease.

Moreover, the MBTA will essentially reward those who actually depend on the system by taxing those who are only occasional riders. Regular riders will be able to obtain and register reusable plastic CharlieCards at select retail locations, which will enable them to receive free transfers and lower fares. Occasional riders—such as tourists and most Harvard students—will have to purchase disposable paper CharlieTickets at subway and bus stations and will have to pay surcharges and an additional transfer fee. In other words, the MBTA fares are designed for working people who truly rely on the services it provides. At the very least, the changes show that the MBTA does have regular users, and those least able to pay more, in mind as it makes the unavoidable decision to restructure fares.

For Harvard students, who live along a subway line and use the T only occasionally, the MBTA’s proposed fare restructuring may seem to be little more than an inconvenience. But those with a social conscience should shelve their self-interested frustration—or misplaced altruism—and support a fare structure that will make the T both economically viable and fairer, even if they don’t work for the MBTA.

Paul R. Katz ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House.