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COLUMN

Raise Taxes For the T

Vivek Rao

Start hoarding your subway tokens now; in a year or so, if the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has its way, fares on all subway and bus routes and some commuter rail lines will increase for the first time since 2000 and just the second time since 1991, all of which would make those small little coins worth $1.25, instead of the current rate of $1.00.

While the motives for this price hike no doubt lie in a genuine interest to help maintain and stimulate Boston-area public transportation, its potential net effect remains rather troubling. Though in the short term, the fare increase may indeed make the MBTA a more financially viable organization, its long term effects range from a decreased emphasis on mass transit to a disturbing system of the lower classes funding a larger proportion of public spending.

However, before pinpointing the flaws of the new MBTA proposal, it is only fair to elucidate the workings of the system. First, the Boston public transportation system remains one of the cheapest in the nation, and has been for quite some time. Throughout the 1980s and even 1990s, fares increased at a far slower rate than the average American transit system. Second, the MBTA is currently in the midst of what amounts to a financial crisis. With concurrent declines in ridership and government funding, the non-profit organization is laden with record debt levels.

If the T is to continue in service, major fiscal changes are necessary. The question is whether maintenance of the T merits such major changes. The answer is a resounding yes.

Founded in 1897, the MBTA system includes the nation’s oldest subway, as well as far-reaching bus, boat, and above-ground train networks. The overall product is a relatively well-oiled machine that services roughly 600,000 commuters a day for a total of about 1.2 million trips. As a key component of Boston’s historical and economic identity, the T should command a far better operational apparatus than the current one. Those who proposed the 2004 fare hike clearly understood this, but unfortunately, they went about the task at hand all wrong.

The most serious flaw in the proposal is that it only stands to decrease ridership. On a purely economic level, it may very well be true that given utility curves and supply and demands graphs and all that fun stuff, the MBTA can maximize its revenue by increasing fares by roughly 25%, even though such a markup will inevitably drive some previously loyal commuters away from public transportation.

Anyone with even a hint of a broader vision for mass transit and environmental preservation should understand that the T and other similar systems throughout the world should not be overly tethered to fiscal concerns. One of the strengths of the MBTA is that its fares are affordable enough that a large percentage of Boston’s working population opts for the T rather than the automobile. If we are truly concerned about saving our planet for future generations, then public transportation is of fundamental importance, and should be stressed and stimulated, relatively regardless of financial considerations.

You probably think my apparent disregard for economic realities means that I’m some sort of naÏve idealist who feels the tree-hugging MBTA can carry on despite accruing massive debts. However, that is far from the truth. The financial burdens of the T cannot be ignored for much longer, and a solution must come via increased government spending, and if necessary, a corresponding tax increase.

There are some out there who feel that raising T prices amounts to nothing more than a tax hike. That is a bit simplistic. Instead, it essentially can be considered a new tax on those who ride the subway and buses on a regular basis. Of course, these are often the same people who cannot afford a car or parking -- in other words, the lower and middle classes.

All of this must make new governor Mitt Romney very happy. The “George Bush of Massachusetts” is determined to slash government spending in order to balance the budget and decrease taxes, leaving concern for key state programs in the backseat. With Romney and other state policymakers failing to allocate more money directly to the MBTA, it was only a matter of time before the T was forced to raise fares in order to just break even. The net effect is that the new state government is returning money to the people through tax breaks, only to take it back via other means, among them more expensive T tokens. What this means is that whereas in the past, both rich and poor gave money to the state, which would then spend it for the public good, now the lower classes are being forced to pay for a larger and larger proportion of public spending.

There are two solutions that must be considered. The first is relatively overarching and would involved a general tax increase that would increase the state’s budget and allow it to accommodate a wide range of crucial programs that are currently facing a money crunch. The second would be more directly aimed at alleviating the MBTA crisis, consisting of increasing highway tolls and gas taxes and directing the extra revenue toward the T to help pay for public transportation. If we really mean business about decreasing fossil fuel emissions and protecting the environment, then it is private transportation, rather than public, that must become less affordable. Make driving more expensive, keep MBTA fares where they are, and both the short-term economic and long-term philosophical goals of mass transit in the Commonwealth can live in peaceful coexistence.