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Here’s a story you might have heard about the MBTA: it’s billions of dollars in debt. Boston has the lowest transit fares of any major city in the country, but the system is facing a $161 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2013, and it’s time for the riders to pay their fair share. To that end, the T released a proposal in early January containing two possible scenarios for fare increases and service cuts, to take effect in July of this year.
Here’s another story. The T is a lifeline for millions of people in the 175 cities it serves. Those most dependent on it are students, senior citizens, disabled people, and lower-income workers. Even those who don’t ride it reap the benefits, as public transportation keeps cars off the road, lowers pollution, and attracts tourists and shoppers who contribute to the city’s economy. The T employs over 6,000 unionized workers and enables thousands more to reach their jobs. The Ride transports elderly and disabled people to doctors’ appointments and allows them to live full lives rather than being confined to their homes. Harvard students use the T to get to extracurricular activities, job interviews, and the cultural events that make Boston an attractive place to go to school.
In 2000, the state of Massachusetts forced the T to start paying for all of its expenses out of a limited amount of money received at the start of the fiscal year, instead of funding it fully as it had in the past. The T is a public good, not a for-profit operation. In addition to the funds it receives from local and state governments, its main sources of revenue are fares and a portion of the state sales tax. But given the state of the economy, revenue from the sales tax has been far less than was predicted in 2000. One of the most glaring injustices in the current funding structure is that the T is responsible for paying off the debt incurred by the Big Dig, a highway project that did not benefit transit riders. In an attempt to gain much-needed revenue, the T has invested in costly interest rate swaps with some of the banks responsible for the economic crisis, including J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. The end result is the T’s current fiscal disaster, which led to January’s proposals for cuts.
In the first proposed scenario, bus and subway fares would increase 43 percent. In the second scenario, the increases would be slightly lower, but there would be more cuts, including 58 percent of bus routes. Both scenarios would eliminate ferry service, commuter rail service after 10 p.m. and on weekends, and weekend service on the Mattapan Trolley and the Green Line’s E branch. The cost of student and senior passes would double. The T is holding hearings where riders can express their opinions about the proposals, but these are effectively just for show, since Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has said the changes are “impossible to avoid” and the T is not actively investigating alternatives.
The proposals would only plug this year’s deficit, meaning that riders could face another round of cuts next year, though it’s hard to imagine what will be left to cut by then. In the meantime, hundreds of people will lose their jobs. Thousands more will lose the ability to get around. The cuts, which target vulnerable populations such as youth, senior citizens, and bus riders (in many cases people of color), are short-sighted and discriminatory.
It’s up to the state government to make sure that public transportation is properly funded. State officials have repeated publicly that the T doesn’t have the money to avoid these measures. But much like at Harvard, the money is there; it’s just in the wrong pot. Not a penny of our fares goes toward the transportation itself; it all goes toward paying off the T’s debt, much of which was unfairly inherited in 2000. A first step would be to relieve the T of some of its debt burden and the loans held by big banks.
A second step would be to raise the gas tax, a solution which Governor Patrick once favored but has recently stepped away from. While T fares have gone up four times since 1991, the gas tax has not increased at all in that time. There are currently several bills in the state legislature that would raise the gas tax and index it to inflation. Many other alternatives exist, including in-house operation of the commuter rail, transit passes paid for by big non-profits, and increased flexibility between capital and operating funds.
One of Boston’s most famous songs tells the story of Charlie, an unfortunate rider who got stuck on the T because of a fare increase. The song ends, “Oh, you citizens of Boston, don’t you think it’s a scandal that the people have to pay and pay?” Plenty of Bostonians do think so and are mobilizing against this attack on public transportation, including groups like the T Riders Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and Occupy Boston. If you don’t think that the T should force riders to bear the burden of an unsustainable budget fix, join the fight. Attend the public hearing in Cambridge on February 29. Sign this petition, then call your legislators and tell them to take a public stand against the cuts. Many of us ride the T, and all of us need it.
Karen A. Narefsky ’11 is an alumna of Dudley House.
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