I am deeply committed to avoiding MBTA service cuts and also to improving the quality of MBTA service. We squeezed through the planning for the current year without major service cuts, but it’s time to start the conversation about a long-term fix.
Here is the political challenge we face: No other part of the state is as directly dependent on public transit as the core of the Boston area. The statewide sales tax already funds over half of the budget of the MBTA (covering all debt service costs plus 38% all other costs in Fiscal 2013). Legislators from other parts of the state are naturally resistant to increasing the subsidy for MBTA riders.
Thirty seven percent of people working in Boston commute by public transportation. Five neighboring communities (Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, Everett, Malden) have transit commute rates over 10%, but in most communities across the state, transit commuting rates are under 5%. For example, Worcester, Springfield, Waltham and Framingham all have transit commute rates under 3% — these are the four communities hosting the highest total number of employees below Cambridge and Boston. The data by place of residence, as opposed to place of work, look similar: The bulk of transit commuters reside in or near Boston and the statewide transit share is 9 percent. (The previous numbers are based on the 2006-8 American Community Survey; see also consistent earlier data from the 2000 census showing ridership at various geographic levels down to the zip code.)
Given this divergence of interest across the state, it is difficult to persuade the legislature as a whole to subsidize the T more heavily. Yes, Boston is the economic engine of the state, healthy development of the whole region depends on a vital Boston, and congestion will strangle Boston if the T does not continue to attract high ridership. And yes, from an environmental perspective, T ridership is desirable and T riders should be supported in sacrificing the convenience of driving. And, of course, many who use the T have no alternative, either because they can’t afford to drive or because they have a disability. As one Senator, representing core communities highly dependent on transit, I entirely embrace these arguments, but many of my colleagues are much less receptive.
There are three alternative directions that we can go: First, we can try to just tough it out, avoiding any new subsidy, holding the line on fare increases and maintaining downward pressure on costs. We certainly need to maintain downward pressure on costs, especially fringe benefits. If ridership numbers hold up better than expected in the face of this year’s fare increases, Fiscal 2014 may not be such a bad year. But the outside review that Governor Patrick commissioned concluded that toughing it out is probably not an option for the long term — all too soon, deferred maintenance on buses, subway cars and tracks will lead to unacceptable declines in safety and service quality.
Second, we could assemble a major transportation funding package that would meet needs in all regions of the state. There is a strong argument for this approach — because of the huge investment we have made in the Big Dig, maintenance for roads and bridges across the state has suffered. Would a statewide tax increase be acceptable if it were entirely dedicated to transportation maintenance and equitably apportioned? That idea has been on the table for five years. At least through the recession years, it has not gained traction. I have long supported a gas tax increase publicly, but, even in my district, where T service cuts would lead to large congestion increases and declines in air quality, I hear from people skeptical of a gas tax increase.
The final group of strategies allocates costs more closely to those who benefit directly from improved service. Perhaps we could increase fares in a way that protects the vulnerable — hard to do without overcomplicating the structure, but this option deserves careful study. Another difficult approach would implement regional tax increases dedicated to transportation. A regional payroll tax would probably require a constitutional amendment that might not pass, all retail businesses would push back against a regional sales tax and most feel that property taxes are too high already. A more intriguing idea is the congestion fee that Derrick Jackson recently wrote about in the Globe: Set up a perimeter around the urban core and use cameras to record license plates and assess fees on non-resident drivers entering the core area. Certainly drivers entering in the core area greatly benefit from the 1/3 reduction in commuter traffic that the T gives them.
There are no easy answers, but we need to start the conversation. Your thoughts would be appreciated.
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