Options for the MBTA (45 Responses)

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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  1. MatthewDanish says:

    The biggest single item is the debt from the Big Dig mitigation projects. The Transportation Finance Commission of 2007 identified them as responsible for approximately $120 million of the T’s deficit.

    It doesn’t make any sense that transit riders are paying for the court-ordered air pollution mitigation of a massive highway project. I realize that this debt was incurred through the expansion of commuter rail (ineffectively, I might add), but it is still a highway mitigation project. The Big Dig would not have been built unless this money was spent. This cost was sneakily shuffled onto the MBTA’s books during the 2000 forward funding legislation process, as a means of hiding it from scrutiny. The thought at the time was that sales tax revenue would be enough to cover up the whole problem. But that did not turn out as expected.

    The T’s debt would be much less intimidating without the $120 million of highway mitigation payments. Then we could consider a number of options for closing the remaining gap. But without moving the highway mitigation debt off the T, everything else is peanuts.

    As for paying down the remaining cost of the Big Dig, I would suggest that I-93 north and southbound be tolled, as I-90 currently is. I realize that there’s some political obstacles in the way, but it is the only fair solution (especially to taxpayers out in Western MA). All cars that pass through the expensive tunnels should have paid a toll to get there.

    • Actually, debt is not the problem. This is a myth. It is true that the T is carrying a lot of debt, but state aid to the T ($947 million in FY2013) greatly exceeds the total cost of debt service for the T ($437 million). T riders are not paying any debt service costs. T riders (who pay a total of $536 million) aren’t even coming close to covering the costs of operating the service ($1,329 million excluding debt service). Please click here and see the revenue and expenses page in the MBTA’s budget to check for your self — it’s towards the back of the packet in the link.

      That’s why this issue is hard — the T is already greatly subsidized. If the state weren’t already covering all the costs of debt and then some, more subsidy would be an easier sell.

      As a your senator, I would be very happy to see I-93 tolled, and I’ve made the suggestion myself, but most riders on I-93 are not happy with the congestion on their commute. They don’t perceive that they have received much benefit from the Big Dig. In their view, it vastly helped Boston, especially the downtown area and emerging development in South Boston, and it helps people headed to the airport, but North and South commuters still experience serious congestion.

      • DavidSprogis says:

        Whoa – debt service is most certainly a factor – money spent on debt is money that could be spent on operations. And I have spent time reviewing the T’s books and I’ve never seen a messier, more obfuscated set of books in my life. The fact that most of the debt is not directly related to capital purchases of PP&E (trains and station renovations) is a disgrace.

        • Yes, of course, debt is part of the picture. In the big picture, the Big Dig debt — distributed across various agencies — is an important part of our cost structure.

          What is false is a myth that the state is making the T riders pay for Big Dig debt — the state gives the T aid from general revenues that covers all of the T’s debt and also covers a portion of the T’s operating costs. The MBTA, for all of its weaknesses, issues debt that is AAA rated because of the huge coverage of it by state aid.

      • MatthewDanish says:

        Hi Will,

        I wasn’t proposing additional subsidy, I was proposing moving the costs of the Big Dig mitigation project back to the highway division. As DSprogis pointed out, that debt service is money that could have gone towards operations.

        But supposing that gets fixed up somehow, that still leaves the T with about 40-50% farebox recovery rate, as you noted. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue (as you’ve probably noticed) and a few facts need to be noted:

        * Roads and highways are heavily subsidized in several ways: besides allotments from the general funds and federal money, all municipalities use regulation to compel landowners to build parking lots and other automobile infrastructure. These zoning regulations constitute an enormous implicit subsidy to automobile travel, which is extremely land intensive by nature, and could not exist the way it does today without forcing concessions from every landowner. (Now there may be good reasons for some of the subsidies, but I feel that they have gone too far, and the costs of this kind of policy too long ignored.)

        * Every dollar that goes to road subsidies is a dollar that draws ridership away from public transit. The cost of running the trains and buses is a fixed expense, and one less rider means a loss of revenue with no lessening of expenses. Which makes the burden that much worse. Every dollar spent on road subsidies actually costs the taxpayer more than $1 overall. Public transit is particularly vulnerable to road subsidies because of its high fixed costs in terms of infrastructure and operations.

        * Since public transit has been taken on by the government, it has to balance two goals: Ridership and Coverage. A private transit agency can choose to focus only on Ridership, and actually become profitable (as is the case in several countries). A public transit agency is generally compelled by law to act as a basic social service (Coverage) in addition to generating revenue. Therefore it must run money-bleeding routes and demand-response vehicles for those in need. I find this mission to be perfectly justifiable from a social standpoint, but it is never going to be profitable, and will always require subsidy. As you may know, the costs of providing demand-response (e.g. The RIDE) have skyrocketed the past few years.

        * To return to land usage: for various reasons, peak travel flows tend to be uni-directional in this region (not as bad as some places, but still). The trouble with peaking is that it requires extremely high levels of service paired with extremely high wasted capacity. The simple way to think about this problem is the morning rush: in order to accommodate the several hundred thousand people who ride to work in the morning, the T must send nearly empty buses and trains back outbound in order to cycle them around. This pattern of travel is far too wasteful to be profitable: the T must pay for the filled seat on the way inbound, and the empty seat on the way outbound. Once again, zoning and many different choices about land usage have contributed to this situation. Successful transit agencies around the world depend on bi-directional, all-day travel for revenue. This means that most every station is a destination: when you exit the station you find yourself in a community, with jobs and homes, not a desolate parking lot or a place where people reject development. The unfortunately popular American paradigm of commuter peak-only transit will always be a model that cannot sustain itself. Land usage planning and transportation infrastructure planning are inextricably intertwined.

        * The T has a strange obsession with spending large amounts of capital on expanding low ridership commuter rail services to affluent communities. Hmm.

        I was hoping to make this comment shorter, alas, I went on too long. I hope that’s okay.

      • MarkKaepplein says:

        The GLX is fiscally irresponsible and hurts low income people. It needs to be stopped so money can go to maintenance projects and greater system reliability, which will bring more riders. Demographics across the US show high income and white folks use subways and commuter rail more, while low income and people of color use more bus transit. Putting rail through Somerville just puts tax dollars in the pockets of condo developers and property owners. Housing costs go up with higher income people displacing low income who now have to find somewhere else they can afford.

        The court case on pollution must have relied on projections, much like sales tax revenue was also projected to keep growing. Did pollution actually increase from the big dig? Perhaps it increased around Somerville from all the added congestion from “traffic calming” and lane reductions. EPA models seem to be very flawed for not considering how much road narrowing and corner tightening adds to pollution along with extra stopping and going for j-walking pedestrians, getting around turning vehicles, and other consequences of lane narrowing.

        Will, can you tell us if Somerville suffered increased pollution from the Big Dig? … once all the added pollution from the construction stopped, that is. Traffic on roads like Rutherford Ave. and McGrath Highway went down, so was there significant net increase? Did it make more pollution, given more strict emissions now than before the Big Dig?

        If we really wanted to reduce pollution to satisfy the EPA, we all just need to turn off our oil and gas furnaces in winter.

        • DavidChase says:

          Mark, your replies would be much better if you were a hair less car-obsessed. First and foremost, we know that pollution and fuel use are not really your first priorities, because you are so concerned about obstacles to driving. There are plenty of better ways to save gasoline than removing road calming; in your case (you’ve mentioned your knees in the past), there are motorcycles and scooters. With suitable gear (far cheaper than an auto) these work in all weather (so says a car-free friend who commutes by bike and motorcycle). And if you don’t think it’s safe because of how other people drive their cars, no kidding. Thus, traffic calming, and perhaps a little more enforcement (I saw two cars save some fuel today by blowing a crosswalk with a little old lady in it, passing a large guy in a gaudy plaid shirt on a large bicycle who had stopped for her. I scooted out further into the street after the first one, and the second one just swerved well over the centerline.).

          Even in cars, if fuel use is a priority, there are strategies for mitigating those minor losses. Drive a hybrid or e-car; those capture otherwise lost energy through regenerative braking (with hybrids, fuel is not wasted in traffic jams; they just sit there). Failing that, drive the smallest possible car — smaller car means less energy to lose and expend. And in any car, if you know the road, you’ll not zoom up to the tight turns and narrow spots, but coast down to a reasonable speed — that’s pretty much the whole point of the traffic calming, right?

          And at least in my neighborhood, traffic calming means that kids can walk to school across Trapelo Road, and the car gets left at home, which saves a lot more fuel than slowing down for the road calming. In addition, life is not all fuel costs; fast, disorderly traffic is annoying to people who live near the road, and they derive a benefit from traffic calming.

        • Agreed that the furnaces are a big problem.

          I think that the air quality monitoring is regionally defined. The classic smog components affect the whole region.

  2. RobynChurchill says:

    Other countries have successfully used the congestion fee:

    In some respects, it isn’t that different from the higher cost of parking in downtown Boston, or Harvard Square. Where there is more demand, the costs are higher.

    My concern is whether a congestion fee would be acceptable to the public, and more importantly to the state senate. I am curious what you think, Will.

    It is crazy that my family of four can drive into Boston for less than it costs to take the T. That should be remedied. One way would be to lower the cost of family travel–which would not solve the problem of funding the T. The other way is to make it more expensive to drive.

  3. BruceJenkins says:

    These issues are always tricky. From the pdf you linked to it is clear that healthcare costs keep inflating, as do pension costs and wages. Like every budget in America (form local to federal), healthcare is going to bankrupt us. It is high time all government does what the private sector has been forced to do and scrap pensions and reign in OPEBs. The problem is unless worker productivity is increasing the continual inflation of wages, pensions and fringes destroys your ability to increase the overall efficiency of the MBTA which is already scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to service compared to almost all the European and Japanese metros (or even Washington DC).

    Our toll system is antiquated. There is a simple means to increase toll revenue anywhere one wants it without increasing congestion. In New York state, for instance, one can now pass through most Fast Lanes at relatively high speeds. Everyone should be required to purchase a transponder when they register their car – it should come with the plates. Then it can be tied, as it is now, to your bank account (and if you don’t pay you can’t register your car next time without paying – just like parking tickets). Then fast lane recorders can be placed wherever one wants tolls – but without cash options or human toll takers. How does one deal with out of state plates? Well, we give them a free ride since we shouldn’t expect them to subsidize our roads for just a few trips.

    • Geoff Dutton says:

      This is a good example of a techno-fix with predictable ramifications. Why wouldn’t drivers, once they learn where the checkpoints are (and they will, very quickly), circumnavigate them, causing chaos on neighborhood streets? How will commuters who have no sensible mass transit alternative feel about providing such subsidies? How much will this add to the costs of local deliveries? How would people doing local errands react to being taxed? Would school buses have to pay, or garbage and fire trucks? What’s to prevent drivers from concealing transponders in RF lockboxes once they get off a toll road? It would take a rather long time, if ever, to get this right.

      • MatthewDanish says:

        Just a quick note: I was in Austin, TX the other week and I noticed that they have a nice system for tolls: you just drive by at highway speed and a camera takes a picture of your license plate from overhead. You get a bill in a mail a few days later ($1.75 IIRC for that highway). If you create an account with the state, you get charged a lower amount to that account.

        There’s really no excuse anymore for inconvenient toll collection systems. And these high speed tolls should be more commonly deployed on highways, instead of having the roads subsidized through taxpayer dollars. Then that money could be turned towards the repair backlog, other services, or even tax cuts eventually.

      • BruceJenkins says:

        Actually I disagree – all your objections seem to arise from the fact that you think this system isn’t already in place in both Mass. and other states. Currently on I90, when you go through the Fast Lane your license plate is recorded. If your account is overdrawn you are sent a bill. Locking your transponder in a rf shield wouldn’t mean you wouldn’t be billed. It does call into question why one needs an rf transponder at all (e.g. as apparently in Austin Texas). As for your argument about congestion, the same could be said of I90. Most people would rather pay a $1 toll then get stuck for 20 min on some small side street. Further, I think we were only talking about a toll on I93.

        • MatthewDanish says:

          I guess I wasn’t entirely clear on this. In the Austin system, there are no human toll collectors at all. Everyone goes through the high speed system, in-state, out-of-state, anyone. The tolls don’t take up any additional land either. They’re about the size of overhead signs, and there are no additional lanes necessary. Most EZ-pass based tolls that I’ve seen are much more sprawling (e.g. the Allston tolls), and require human collectors for non-users. It’s possible that newer ones are better, I haven’t been keeping close track.

  4. AaronWeber says:

    My understanding is that the state legislature controls how many liquor licenses Boston has. Would it be possible for the legislature to allow Boston to fund extra T repairs by auctioning off additional liquor licenses?

    How about increasing parking-meter fees (dramatically, as they’re doing in SF – like, in some blocks, $5/hour, which is still WAY cheaper than a garage) and using that money to pay for transit (“Pay extra: It’s how you get a space!”)

  5. fredhapgood says:

    Alas a distressing number of out of state plates seem to belong to Massachusetts residents. I am looking at one right now.

    But be that as it may, it does seem as though a congestion tax is the route of least resistance, with a gas tax in second place. A congestion tax might not — probably does not — have enough support right now, but sooner or later something dramatically bad will happen and when it does the politics around this question will change. It would be a good idea to have a plan all worked out and ready to go when that shoe drops.

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