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:
    London
    http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/
    Stockholm
    http://www.trafikverket.se/

    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.

  6. NaomiIsler says:

    I’m not sure that any one of the above is the sole solution – some sort of combination would probably make more sense. The real issue is how to get a civilized conversation started and continued. And other areas of the state need to be part of this conversation; the T may be the biggest but the others need help too. Really – is the 2000 census the latest source of figures on transit use??? Surely there have been some changes since then.

  7. JimGreiner says:

    Hi, Will, a gas tax is a good idea as a way to decrease consumption. As I understand it, it is regressive in actual operation, which is not best. Since you asked for our views, as opposed to what is politically popular (or even feasible), I’d favor a gradually increasing gas tax, with a corresponding decrease in taxes paid by the poortest portions of our population. A congestion tax is also a good option, although my understanding is that it was politically unpopular when tried in other cities (but again, there doesn’t seem to be a popular option). Long-term degredation of the T infra-structure, which is what will happen if we simply try to hold the line on costs, is just a way of kicking the can down the road. It’s time to pay the piper.

  8. DanielWinter says:

    I think a gas tax increase is a dumb way to raise funds because as cars get more and more miles per gallon, which is a mandate from the Feds, it will become less and less a good source of funding unless you raise every time the average fuel economy goes up. I actually favor two different ideas, one would be an optional property tax on developments near light and heavy rail rapid transit that communities could use to pay for increased MBTA funding. Having good rapid transit near a building adds tremendous value to that private property. And adding a tax based on how far a property is to rapid transit would capture some of the private value increase from the public investment. We could give a development a 7-10 year grace period after initial construction. For most downtown property, the way leases work in Massachusetts, it would become part of the common area charge. The second is to rather than increase the gas tax, change to a mileage used tax, where a car is charged by the mile traveled and lower the gas tax. The billing for this new tax could be part of the inspection process when odometers are read, automatically in new cars, and people could get the tax bill as part of the car insurance billing process. Some kind of abatement process would have to be created for out of state travel though but that is a detail.

    • Geoff Dutton says:

      I’m dubious. As for a mileage tax, if I take a family vacation and drive 2,000 miles, say to Florida and back, does Massachusetts have a claim on all those miles? Can you imagine the response from the insurance industry to being asked to collect such tolls for the Commonwealth? It might work on if enacted a national basis, but if and only if the revenues end up where they were intended (mass transit systems). As the way that state proceeds from the Big Tobacco settlement got allocated demonstrates, that isn’t how such arrangements tend to work out in budgetary sausage machines that our governors and legislatures operate.

    • MarkKaepplein says:

      Taxpayers ABSOLUTELY need to recover the windfall given to property owners given public benefits. For the Green Line Extension, that includes properties within 0.5 mi of a new station. It also includes all properties adjacent to where sound barriers are to go up along rail lines.

      This should have been done for the Red Line extension in the 1980′s, but better late than never. Recovering taxpayer largess will make additional transit expansions more feasible, and should help lower the interest rate on a bond. No way should sleazy condo developers pocket huge profits! Currently, there is only a meager recovery in the form of property tax on appreciated land, and then only to that city/town, not everyone who paid for it.

      Part of beneficiaries paying for increased service could include higher costs to that city/town getting them – a bump up of multiplier and total increase in assessments.

  9. DavidChase says:

    Possibly a little bit of everything — nudge the gas tax up, because it hasn’t tracked inflation, AND because cars are more fuel-efficient. Find some way of charging trucks more, because heavy vehicles do far more damage to roads (in all parts of the state). Bump up the parking meter charge, and turn some of that back to the T. We could probably kick up the not-fast-past tolls another couple of notches at the local toll booths (I’m thinking Allston); regulars will get fast pass, privacy nuts and lazy bums (i.e., me) will just swallow the toll, because it’s still much nicer than the alternatives.

    Look into the least-onerous way of collecting congestion charges. License-reading cameras sound interesting; give out-of-state plates a free ride, unless we notice the same plates showing up again and again and again — a clue that someone should be buying Mass tags. Can we make the congestion charge be time-sensitive? It might be an easier sell if it corresponded to actual rush hours. Yes, people might try to game it. We have to tolerate a little of that; getting to zero tolerance means we’re probably being really annoying in some way or another. Maybe we give each car one free trip to Boston per month — or maybe we don’t, so that people who still don’t know their way around very well (me, again) are given that much more incentive to take the T or bike.

    I’ve heard that some of the suburban rail stops are parking-limited. If this is true, perhaps there should be some pushback; either those towns make their parking lots larger, or they do some serious work on providing non-car access to their train stations (local transit services, shuttle busses, better bicycle access, car pool spaces), or they kick in some cash.

    • MarkKaepplein says:

      Trucks already pay more in user fees. Taxes are higher on diesel fuel than gasoline. It discourages diesel automobiles, but they are compensated with better gas mileage. Diesel has higher energy density than gasoline, which is again higher than gas/ethanol blends. Liquefied Natural Gas is then about half that, resulting in low MPG and large fuel capacity needed on those MBTA buses to get through a shift without spending lots of time refueling, which itself takes longer. Otherwise LNG is great for burning cleaner.

      Gas tax increases are far more inflationary and regressive than, say, higher income taxes on the rich. The price of all physical goods and services go up. Low income people already pay a much higher portion of income to transportation, and the higher tax just makes it worse.

      Increasing transportation (driving) costs brings more affluent people closer from the burbs, increasing housing prices and displacing lower income people. Central Square, Cambridgeport, and Davis Square are examples of this happening, with the latter most caused by creating subway (most desirable type) service.

      • DavidChase says:

        I don’t think trucks pay anywhere near enough; road damage is proportional to at least the cube of the wheel weight, summed over all the wheels. I bought and read a book on this (Road Work, Brookings Institution, http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/1989/roadwork ). Their basic recommendation was to charge trucks a good deal more, and then build stronger roads that would not need repairing so often (thus increasing the value of the roads). They justified this with a lot of math, attempting to assign costs to congestion, and to lost use of road from repairs, etc.

        Note that the FHWA says that damage is proportional to the 4th power of wheel weight. Redoing the math below using that relation is left as an exercise for the reader, but it only gets more alarming.

        Here’s a stab at computing a “fair” price for trucks using our roads, given a cubic relation between tire weight and wear. (By-the-way, some places, perhaps Massachusetts, have weird rules that penalize multiaxle trucks, when we should actually like that because it spreads the load and saves the road , perhaps by as much as a factor of 8).

        My 2000 lb Honda, has 4 wheels, times 500 cubed = 500 M “units of damage”. A fully loaded 18-wheeler, assuming evenly distributed weight, has 18 * (80000/18) cubed = 1,580,000 M “units of damage”, or 3000 times the road damage.

        We pay $.235 per gallon gas tax in Massachusetts. Convert that to a per-mile tax by dividing by my mpg (about 30), gives about $.008/mile.

        If I’m not being overtaxed in my Honda, then a fair rate for that truck would be 3000 times higher, or $24/mile when fully loaded, or $3/mile if half-loaded. If a truck gets 3mpg, then between $9 and $72/gallon of fuel would be a fair tax. Truck registration fees in Massachusetts appear to be $1600/year ( http://www.mass.gov/rmv/fees/index.htm ) for an 80000lb semi-trailer. That cover 530 miles of road use half-loaded, or 67 miles fully-loaded.

        Perhaps I picked the wrong car for a reference — say the reference weighs twice as much, or 4000lbs, Then things get 8 times better for the truck — between $1.25 and $9 per gallon of fuel, or the registration fee covers between 4240 and 530 miles of road use. That estimated fuel tax is still far higher than what they pay, and the miles covered by the registration fee are quite low.

        And in case you’re wondering about bicycles and their “fair share”, the heaviest bike I know of is mine, fully loaded (happens about once per year) with 250lbs on each of two wheels. That’s 1/2 the wheels, and 1/8 the damage per wheel, or 16 times less damage than the Honda ($0.008/mile). So per mile, a “fair” fee for that bike fully loaded is about $0.0005. Unloaded half-weight and 8 times less cost, or about $0.00006 per mile — and I’m a heavy guy on a heavy bike. At 3000 miles per year, my fair share for road damage from my bicycle is about 20 cents.

        • MarkKaepplein says:

          I’m not sure what the point is of whinging on about trucks. The largest represent a small fraction of road traffic. 80,000lbs is the Interstate maximum, while some state roads in Maine, for example have allowed 100,000lbs. I remember well the logging trucks thundering by when headed skiing. Many trucks around here are seldom fully laden and often return empty. I agree trucks should bear higher cost, but it just goes straight to inflation and higher prices of all goods. Economists have probably worked out what might be needed to shift more freight to rail and water. I’m afraid the answer would be significant shift is too expensive.

          • DavidChase says:

            Mark, the point of whinging about trucks is simple arithmetic. Suppose you have 3000 Hondas (or similar 1-ton subcompacts) on the road. Add one fully loaded 18-wheeler. You just doubled the road wear, when .03% of the traffic is trucks. If one percent of the traffic is trucks, you get 30 times the road wear of no trucks. If half the trucks are empty, then 15 times the road wear. Even when half the trucks are empty, and the others are only half-loaded, 1% truck traffic more than doubles the wear on the road.

            And you are trying to have it both ways with market-based arguments. You cannot on the one hand say that you want to price things as close to their use (charging towns for increased property values, charging beneficiaries for increased service) and then go all “good for the economy” on road socialism. We know that trucks consume roads much, much faster than smaller vehicles; they should pay in proportion to their use. Costs may shift, but markets are really good about exploiting cheaper alternatives — either trucks will be loaded more lightly, or stuff will be produced more locally (when the cost of transit justifies it), or by rail, or by boat. If it raises prices for the poor, the best way to subsidize them is to put more money in the pockets of the poor, and not to launder the subsidy through the trucking industry.

            And market-based — trying to apportion transit charges to the people who benefit from them — is completely compatible with congestion charges. There’s competition for space on the roads in Boston. Right now, people “bid” for that space by waiting in line. Congestion charges mean that you can “bid” by spending money. It makes sense to not pursue congestion charges when they require cumbersome toll booths, but if we can do it on-the-fly with cameras, that’s a pretty lightweight transaction.

  10. MarkKaepplein says:

    There are many opportunities to fill the gap which are not discussed:
    1. Davey has talked about controlling The Ride costs like NYC did, but nothing has happened. When will abuses be stemmed? Make sure people are entitled to use it rather than discourage use by making the service horrible. It also seems like the ratio of gas guzzling short buses to cars is way off – too many buses. The car rides ought to be for lower income people – those with money and better mobility can use cabs.

    2. Stimulate sales tax growth. The most expensive purchase taxed for the great majority is a car. Anti-car measures thus hurt this revenue. Also, people don’t bring home flat screens and air conditioners home on the bus or a bicycle, they use cars. Where traffic congestion is bad, people shop online more. Sales tax, money, and jobs are all lost when people visit brick and mortar stores less because getting there is too slow or frustrating.

    3. How about an override on the assessment to cities and towns? 2.5% growth isn’t cutting it and towns don’t keep that bargain with residents either.

    4. How about increasing service efficiency by pricing the services fairly to communities? For example, there could be a cost assigned to a bus stop for each time a bus passes/stops per week. Same for commuter rail, subway, water shuttle. Parking lots could be charged using a license plate survey to see where lot users live and those places assessed. Its much like paying for the water/sewer/gas/electric one uses. Communities might then be proactive in reducing low usage stops or services rather than need $10M projects and consultants to plead with towns to reduce bus stops to speed service while reducing operational costs. Quincy, for example, is one place that gets far more than their share of services for what it pays as one of the 51 cities/towns, per MGL Ch. 161a, Sec. 9: Red Line, commuter rail, 4 parking garages, and 15 bus routes. Much more than Arlington gets as one of the 9 communities (defined in Section 1).

    5. How about charging Cambridge more money? They have consistently increased development and tax base while using zoning and parking maximums to push added transportation needs on to the MBTA. Cambridge has reduced roadway and saves roadway costs by pushing demand on the MBTA unlike other member communities, and is not fair.

    6. Somerville pushes for the Green Line Extension because they get more subway stops and tax base increases and don’t have to pay any of it! Their proportion of MBTA assessments should go up now as station design and other costs are already here.

    7. Have out of state residents who work in Mass and pay Mass income tax on Mass earnings, get their payments directed to supporting the mode of travel they most likely use based on workplace location. Somebody from NH, VT, or NY will drive, so roads gets the money. Somebody in CT, ME, or RI might drive or take a train, so there will be a split. Transportation is the service these commuters most use, so the general fund serves them less fairly.

    In general, when somebody pays for a benefit they get, its used more responsibly. People are preoccupied with charging drivers more for roadway this way, but have blinders on for applying the concept elsewhere.

    Congestion pricing doesn’t work here. Too many roads are over capacity, so there are too many places to try and enforce charges no mater what over-priced and over-complicated technology is dreamed up. NYC is much easier: tunnel and bridge tolls. Increase the general cost of living, driving, and business in MA, just sends more people and jobs packing. Better to cut waste, starting with the Green Line Extension, which would have made more sense if it included a parking garage at the end and widening of Rt. 16. Right now its just another taxpayer gentrification project hurting low income people in the end.

    • DavidChase says:

      Mark, I don’t think you can so easily can the Green Line extension — I’m pretty sure it is part of Big Dig pollution mitigation. Yup, quick Google search, and “The Green Line extension is a court-mandated requirement as part of the settlement of a lawsuit over the environmental impact of the Big Dig”.

      • MarkKaepplein says:

        Yeah, I’m saying to try and get the court order reversed. The Red-Blue line interchange was part of the deal too, along with the Silver Line, parking expansion, and added commuter rail. The MBTA wants to can the Red-Blue connection, which makes sense to me as little pollution could be reduced by it.

        Having all the extra MBTA service added justifies increasing the total sum of community assessments. 2.5% increases could be justified with constant service, but offerings have increased, thus charges should also.

  11. MichaelMenzie says:

    I think it’s time to suck it up and raise the gas tax. Gasoline prices swing as much as 25cents/gallon up or down in any given month and nobody pays much attention anymore, so a 5 cent/gallon tax increase isn’t that big of a deal. All the Tea Party types will holler and gnash their teeth but as someone who drives and uses the T it seems the best way to go.

  12. MarkKaepplein says:

    By the same logic, we need a death tax. That is, the estate of someone who dies should be paid by everyone still alive because the decedent has freed up their burden of oxygen consumption and other natural and public resources, leaving more for everyone else.

    • MarkKaepplein says:

      My comment got pulled out from being a reply, so lost context. It is responding to the claim that public transit serves drivers by reducing contention for road capacity, thus drivers ought to pay for that.

  13. GabiRomanow says:

    What about a gas tax in and within 10 miles of Boston?

    What about a fee on car inspections? (Also within ten miles?)

    We must talk about public transportation in terms of quality of life for those who use it, as well as quality of the planet. Even those in Western Massachusetts are threatened by climate change and pollution. The more cars, the more the whole planet suffers. A robust public transportation system everywhere it can be must be a part of the solution.

    • MarkKaepplein says:

      The problem with oil and greenhouse gas production is that both are global. Building domestic oil production has little effect on the global oil prices we pay. Global warming is unstoppable. Any economic suffering we take on to slow warming just gives strength to economies that don’t handicap themselves.

      People drive to NH to escape sales tax on purchases, so driving a little once a year for a cheaper inspection is easy. Instead, higher registration fees could be applied to vehicles registered in communities along I-93, and Route 3, though that too can be avoided.

  14. Thanks to everyone weighing in here! This is exactly the kind of back and forth that needs to happen over the the next year or so. I really appreciate the comments!

  15. MarkKaepplein says:

    Another example of how taxing drivers is wrong – try doing this first:

    All parents sending kids to private primary/secondary schools should be compensated for leaving more resources to the public school students.

  16. 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….)

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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).

  20. [...] 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. [...]

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