Over the past few years, the MBTA has made great strides in reducing costs and improving service, making Boston’s system the envy of other Northeast cities. However, Forward Funding legislation, which requires the MBTA to borrow against future revenue to pay for capital projects, is dedicating increasing fractions of the annual operating budget to interest payments. This benefits no one except capital markets that are collecting interest on the debt. No amount of fare increases or service cuts can solve the MBTA’s deficit alone.
Cutting service or increasing fares for debt repayment contradicts the capital program’s purpose. It’s like buying a home and choosing not to live there, saving money on utilities and using those savings to pay off the mortgage. The MBTA needs to seek external funding to close the funding gap versus fare and service changes. These changes — a 43 percent fare increase and up to 17 percent service reduction — eliminates off-peak and suburban transit service, a lifeline to many Commonwealth residents and suburban municipalities, particularly in the Route 128 corridor. This will have a detrimental effect on all of us. (Not to mention that it’ll not only leave “Charlie” riding forever and ever all around Greater Boston, but also leave him stranded in Haverhill or Hingham after 10:00!)
There are three important issues the MBTA and the Commonwealth must examine as it applies to these residents and municipalities:
First, cutting off-peak service hurts economic activity and Boston’s power as the regional economic engine. Service enabling commuters to stay in Boston later or take weekend trips is critical to outlying towns and businesses these commuters frequent. Off-peak travel is associated with sports events, entertainment, continuing education, and retail spending. Removing this option leaves commuters constrained in their daily schedules. At minimum, a commuter bus alternative must be provided, but negates costs savings from commuter rail and boat cuts.
Second, cutting off-peak service also disproportionately affects low-income populations that are particularly dependent on transit for access to employment, especially in suburban areas. Many residents whose jobs require evening work hours are reliant on off-peak service, as they cannot always afford a car.
Finally, traffic congestion and the parking situation in Boston will go from bad to completely impossible as commuters begin driving to work for flexibility. If parking spaces must be provided in the downtown at high land or construction costs, economic development would be handicapped.
We cannot ignore its effect on infrastructure, either. Cutting the capital program as a “solution” to future infrastructure financing needs (as has been suggested) is harmful in two ways:
First, it will result in a state of disrepair. Transit infrastructure requires periodic maintenance and renewal. Deferring important maintenance and repair work will eventually result in a failure-prone and unsafe system with inefficient components and technologies, costing even more to fix in the future.
If sufficiently neglected, catastrophic failures can occur, suspending service indefinitely and putting lives at risk. Replacement must take place on a continuing basis.
It’s also bad for the environment. Cutting transit service and projects will inevitably lead to more private automobiles. This increases highway infrastructure needs (and overall transportation costs) increases petroleum consumption, and contributes to more air quality problems, resulting in more respiratory illnesses. While automobiles are becoming cleaner and cheaper with modern technology, commuter transit also benefits from new clean-air technologies but further reduces pollution by allowing many passengers to share the same bus or train.
The proposed service reductions are unacceptable for the Commonwealth’s future. Massachusetts must provide dedicated and continuing funding grants directly to the MBTA for capital expenditures and write off the MBTA’s prior self-supported debt from earlier capital expansion projects. This debt burden has made it increasingly difficult for the MBTA to deliver the excellent transit services that residents expect. No other transit system in the world struggles with such a high debt repayment burden. Other sources of revenues can be used to repay transportation-related debt and subsidize transit operations, such as highway user fees, real estate taxes, or general revenue.
Pick up the phone and call your representatives. They need to know that transit service is important and that not leaving “Charlie” stranded out in Haverhill or Hingham is the Spirit of Massachusetts.
Alex Lu SM ’03 is a transit analyst and planner.