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Will Brownsberger
State Senator
2d Suffolk and Middlesex District

Options for the MBTA (45 Responses)

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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.

For additional resources on the MBTA, see our issues page on the MBTA.

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  1. [...] A top local concern with important implications for the economy is the MBTA. Fortunately, there is a strong consensus that we need to act early next year to put the MBTA on a stronger financial footing. My effort will be to make sure that the actions we take will allow the system to actually improve and provide better service. Better service is a top priority for people across my district, both as users and as residents on streets suffering from traffic congestion. Improving the MBTA may also be the most important contribution state government can make to the vitality of the businesses and institutions in my district. Congestion now constrains growth in many areas, including the Longwood Medical Area, which is vital to the region. [...]

  2. RachelKlein says:

    I don’t know what the answers are – but I do know that all measures possible must be made to increase T ridership – and decrease use of cars. This would mean significant investment in the MBTA – to make it really work for more people – and pressures on car drivers (is money the only way to do this?)- especially those who drive non-hybrid vehicles and are “single drivers” – one person driving a 2000 to 4000lb car or SUV, with all the waste of gas and pollution, including greenhouse gasses, to transport only themselves to wherever.

    This is, as I see it, an public policy, transportation planning and infrastructure issue. Visionary leaders would pay more attention to planning for our shared future – and realize that an large investment in public transportation – a system that is practical and works for many more people – especially people who are currently forced to travel congested roads (like I93) as single drivers – in a world where fossil fuels will only become more and more expensive – would pay for itself and maybe even produce revenue, reduce congestion, stimulate economic growth and reduce all kinds of pollution.

    The reality is that people who live close to public transportation that works use it. I fondly remember living in Davis Square and riding the red line to and from work – and the freedom it gave me to go nearly everywhere in Boston very easily and efficiently – without having to drive nearly anywhere. I had easier access to many places living in Davis square than I ever did with a car – especially getting into and out of the city – which seems to me to be the source of most of the traffic – jobs in Boston, people living in suburbia.

    People who live on the T system have a special privilege – the property owners are the people who benefit more than anyone else – higher payments for rent and higher property values. I agree with an additional property tax on real estate within a radius of a train station. I see the bus system as much different – it is much less efficient and I doubt being on a bus route raising properly values as much. Again – some tax assessment on real estate very close to bus routes would make sense – higher rents, higher property values.

    But in the final analysis – there is no short term answer for this long term problem. Our culture is always looking for the easy way – the quick fix. It takes real investment and vision to grow a system that works – a public transportation system that can sustain itself, reduce pollution to a huge extent and help resolve intolerable road congestion – for good – requires leadership that I don’t see right now. The Big Dig was, in my opinion, a huge error in judgement – it didn’t do a heck of a lot of good except for a small number of drivers and some very crooked contractors. We need a “Big Dig” level of vision and commitment to public transportation – but because the people who have cars and drive alone enjoy this privilege that costs us all – in so many ways – and the people who currently use the MBTA have less money and political power, I don’t see this happening until a crisis point is reached – if then.

    On a final note – don’t “tax” people who have disabilities to pay for larger issues. Our MBTA system still isn’t fully accessible for the majority of people living with disabilities – which is a shame and a disgrace. “The Ride” is not the problem. The 200% increase in Ride fares will cost the Commonwealth more ultimately – because people are unable to even attend all of their medical appointments due to an $8 fare. This will result in much higher ultimate costs – for the ER vists and inpatient care that will be needed.

    This is another example of short-sighted policy – investing over 1.5 billion in biotech companies is fine, but try suggesting we invest in people – our most precious and fragile resource – and an outcry is heard that reaches far and wide – there is a total lack of understanding that anyone can become disabled at any time – this is not a “laziness” or “abuse of the system” issue. Able bodied people have no idea what disability is like – if they did, our whole society would treat people differently.

    Try raising Mass Pike tolls that much and there would be a public outcry – yet the poorest and most vulnerable people are taxed and have no voice due to many factors – these are people some of whom have a little as $700 a month – and must choose which medical appointments they can afford to attend and how often they can go food shopping – not to mention not being able to get to activities that allow real community participation – like voting.

    I know this was too long- but I read all the other posts and found them to be myopic – near sighted – instead of looking at the long term issues.

    • DavidChase says:

      “Is money the only way to do this?” Not necessarily, but money might be the best way to do this. It’s very flexible, easy to tune and tinker. That might be a bug, not a feature, if every change in the political winds resulting in a whipsaw change in transit policy.

      An alternate way to discourage driving without charging more money is to do various things to make cars less “useful”. We could lower speed limits and enforce them (there’s a significant difference in pedestrian danger with every 1mph increment from 20 to 30mph — the risk of pedestrian death in a crashes increases by 5-7x over that interval — from 5%, to 35-45%, according to what I read). We could change rules for right-of-way — establish bus-only lanes, so that they are not delayed by traffic jams. We could modify the signal at lights so that busses (in the bus lane) got to go first and not be impeded by cars, or we could allow busses to hurry the cycle so that they could get through without stopping (at the expense of car cross-traffic). We could remove lanes in general from auto use; give people more room to walk and ride bicycles. We could change signals all over to give more priority to things that are not cars. For instance, if you have to cross Fresh Pond Parkway on foot, there are various signalled pedestrian crossings. They have a decently long interval after each button press cycle before they will activate again; shorten that interval, and make it that much faster to walk or bike, and that much slower to drive.

      Note that this is all still costly, just in “time”, not “money”. This makes it in some sense a “progressive” tax, since the time of a higher income person is “worth more”.

      The one problem I have with how we do transit, is that for me, it’s not fast and flexible enough, and I don’t know what it would take to make it fast and flexible enough. My bicycle is faster, runs on my schedule, is immune to traffic jams, and I always find a place to park near where I need to be. I think that might be a fine metric for evaluating any transit system — until it’s faster than a fat old guy on a bike, it’s not fast enough. I have no problem at-all with discouraging car use; it’s cars on the road that keep most people from riding bikes, and there are a few roads that I avoid because of traffic. And good transit might be cheaper; I do spend freely on my bicycle, whenever I think it might make it nicer for me to ride. If everyone did that, it would amount to a heck of a lot of money (though not near as much as we spend on cars).

  3. GeorgesBrun-Cottan says:

    It has been a while I did not use MBTA, but various annoyance/thoughts.
    . Work on the bus: bus stops are too close (3 stops between cross street and hittinger street, 3 stops between blanchard street and freshpond parkway). It increases the commute time, it creates congestion on traffic and other bus on same line. Work with road departments so during commute, bus do not stop the traffic – maybe more frequent stop encroachement on the curbside? benefits car and bus. Commute time is slow – so narrowing/doubling lines across bus stop with priority to bus exiting stop might help.
    . I am really surprised by the low rate of commute in Cambridge, but the stats are from 2000 and there was significant change (e.g. tech parks around Alewife). Maybe new stats will show better commute rate?
    . There is no stats correlating mbta use rate with number of transportation connection required. Everytime public transportation is not direct and requires even one connection… you have to be a hero or really really have no other way…
    . Bus is not as comfortable as the train/metro, but it use the same infrastructure than car and is much more flexible. How does compare the cost of transportation for bus with the metro? Lanes can be secured for bus similarly as car pool lane at come hours. If bus and car are electric – could we convert subway lane into bus lane that could connect to rest of the road? I know crazy :-)
    . Removing non work incentive to commute: more online services (like RMV registration, online payement of parking ticket :-). Favor adding public service (social security, RMV) or assimilated (like MGH service in Waltham).

    I am lucky enough for my work to allow a decent amount of telecommuting. It is not clear to me yet what will be the impact of telecommuting in Boston Metro: Boston is not anymore an industrial area and it is not clear if the rational for concentration and commute will keep like this for long. This is probably too far away for the investment in this thread though… but creating regulation and incentive for companies to favor telecommuting might help.

  4. Again, let me say that the back and forth here is very helpful — a very full exposition of many of the arguments that we’ll face over the coming months!

    Thanks again to all.

  5. DavidChase says:

    In the spirit of full and equal taxation closely tied to uses, we have Rhymes With Orange (14 Sept 2012): http://www.bostonglobe.com/2011/09/09/rhymeswithorange/TpFLQV2vEBfEyjDMa55gqM/story.html
    (I hope the link stays active….)

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