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The MBTA Should Be Free

By Chrystal O. Aluya, Leonel Barrera Jr., and Peter K. Messervy
Chrystal O. Aluya ’24 lives in Dunster House. Leonel Barrera Jr. ’24 lives in Lionel Hall. Peter K. Messervy ’24 lives in Cabot House.

The T should be free. As college students and the youth of Boston, we believe that a fare-free Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority system would help both low-income communities and the environment, without imposing increased financial burdens on everyone. To implement this fare-free system, two critical steps must occur first: We must free the MBTA from its debt, and then we must implement alternative revenue sources.

Currently, there is an appalling exponential growth of inequity in the Boston area. Not only does Boston rank sixth on the list of American cities with the highest income inequality, but economic mobility is decreasing in Massachusetts. We need a fare-free MBTA to help slow down, or even reverse, this trend. By allowing people to travel more affordably to school, job interviews, and other opportunities, this system would reduce some simple barriers that these low-income individuals face.

A fare-free system could also have a positive impact on the economy of the Boston area as a whole. Contrary to trickle-down theory, economists at the International Monetary Fund have found that a one percentage point increase in the income share of the top 20 percent is associated with a 0.08 percentage point decrease in GDP growth over the following five years, while the same increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent is associated with a 0.38 percentage point increase in GDP growth. Thus, by relieving the economic constraints borne by low-income communities, a free MBTA will benefit and improve the overall economy in the long term.

A free MBTA system will be more environmentally sustainable as well. In 2018 alone, Boston emitted 6.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, with 29 percent of these greenhouse gases emerging from the transportation sector. If the MBTA is free, citizens will have more incentives to ride instead of drive, which will thereby reduce carbon emissions and improve public health.

So how do we actually make the MBTA free?

First, the MBTA’s massive debt creates legislative barriers. In 2019, the MBTA had a structural deficit of $36.5 million and expected to spend $480 million to service its debt. Due to the pandemic, the agency now anticipates facing a deficit of at least $308 million — perhaps as much as $577 million — in the coming years. Before we can implement a fare-free system, the MBTA must be brought out of its massive debt.

Unfortunately, the MBTA cannot necessarily depend on a steady or sufficient supply of aid from the federal government, which has long underfunded and neglected accessible public transportation. Part of the problem is the hierarchy of responsibility. The Federal Transit Administration is responsible for providing financial support to public transportation systems across the nation, but the funds it uses require authorization by the United States Congress. It is the continued failure of Congress to recognize public transportation as a necessary right — including now, as a stimulus for transit is mired in negotiations — that has exacerbated the problem.

The largest concern about the fare-free proposal is making up the MBTA’s budget deficit fare revenue currently covers. Fare revenue, which makes up around one-third of total revenue, is the organization’s second-largest revenue source.

But this revenue can be made up. One method would be increasing the number of advertisements on the T or other modes of MBTA transportation.

The best way to fill this gap, however, would be to increase sales tax or to allocate a greater portion of sales tax revenue to the MBTA. Boston, which generates a disproportionate amount of revenue compared to its population and land area, is the “economic engine” of the state. If a free MBTA can help people get to work on time, reduce carbon emissions, and reduce barriers posed by socioeconomic inequalities, it is a worthy investment towards a better future for the state.

Who will bear the responsibility to fund the MBTA? The popular argument that there will be an extreme increase in taxes on ordinary citizens is untrue. A two-cent increase in Massachusetts’s gas tax would cover fare-free buses statewide, according to Livable Streets Alliance. The group also argued it would only cost about $36 million a year to stop collecting fares on buses in Greater Boston, or $60 million to do it statewide. Assuming that more people in Boston would be using the MBTA service if it is free, these extra taxes and funds would be a comparatively insignificant amount of the overall budget. Even if taxes did increase, the financial burden would not have to fall on the middle class. For instance, large corporations could be the main target of the extra taxes, since many of the MBTA’s riders work for these companies.

That’s why we need Massachusetts politicians to step in. Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79, you can publicly advocate for your loyal constituents to lobby for an increased awareness of public transportation in Congress. And you can help get rid of the MBTA’s enormous deficit so that we can implement bolder ideas. A financially secure, fare-free MBTA system would make this state a better place and a role model for the country.

Chrystal O. Aluya ’24 lives in Dunster House. Leonel Barrera Jr. ’24 lives in Lionel Hall. Peter K. Messervy ’24 lives in Cabot House.

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