To run Greater Boston, we need trains and buses that run reliably. To get there, we are going to have to make some hard choices.
For what it’s worth, over the past few years of working with the MBTA to improve service to my district, I’ve formed a positive impression of the MBTA’s current leadership — both on the executive side and the union side — they are smart people working hard to do the right things for the right reasons.
Although we can improve our communication about service, we can’t provide reliable service without spending more money on system maintenance — and I’ve long advocated for better long-term funding and will continue to do so.
It is clear that, for now, our Governor intends to solve the problem without new taxes. With the departure of the General Manager, he owns the challenge. I wish him success and I look forward to collaborating with him. But he won’t find any easy answers.
The MBTA competes directly with every other important state and local budget priority. General tax revenues supply 65% of the T’s $1.9 billion budget.1 It’s a tight budget year all around and it won’t be easy for the state to provide additional help.
Further, it is only 19 months since the legislature passed a package to improve support for transportation investment. Some of the benefits of the recent package will take several years to be felt — notably the new Red and Orange line cars. While many of us felt the package should be larger, the voters voted to reduce it in November — the appetite for a new aid package in this session is low.
Public transit is essential — you just can’t get all the people in and out of the urban core without it. As true as that is, the majority of commuters, even those commuting to the central city, do drive, so the direct constituency for transit is not everyone.2 That makes it harder to fund than some other programs.
There are no easy cost cutting strategies either. It is true that the MBTA carries significant indebtedness, but restructuring doesn’t offer any relief. The state contributions to the MBTA already amount to more than twice the MBTA’s total debt service costs.3
It is also true that over decades, through successive collective bargaining agreements, MBTA employees negotiated a compensation package that is heavy on pension and benefits as a share of total compensation. It is bad policy for public agencies to grant compensation increases in the form of generous benefits, because those benefits stand out and are offensive to many taxpayers. But we have already cut the most unusual of those benefits and it is not at all clear that T workers have total compensation that is out of line.4
Given limited resources and more or less fixed costs, we need to do a better job setting priorities within our transportation budget. Some routes in the transit system have relatively low ridership and are therefore very expensive to run. Yet, every route matters deeply to its ridership, which, by definition, includes some people who have no other way to get around. The system-wide weekday average taxpayer subsidy per bus ride was $1.42 in 2011. One of the options put forward in the 2012 planning cycle was to cut the service that was subsidized at three or more times that level — in the face of very emotional opposition, that option really didn’t get serious consideration.5
Similarly, some expansionary elements of the current long term transportation plan are likely to have relatively low ridership, notably proposed rail service to Hyannis, Springfield and the South Coast area. Yet these proposals have passionate support from the legislators whose districts they would benefit.
The new Governor may have the biggest impact if he is able to force some hard choices about cutting routes and expansion projects that don’t justify themselves — that way, we may be able to concentrate management attention and our scarce resources on the most heavily used routes.
Note 1: In the budget for the current fiscal year, sales tax payers are covering $970 million and the state is contributing another $135 million in assistance subject to appropriation. The T also receives $160 million from assessments on cities and towns in the service region, which is covered ultimately by property taxes. Fares cover only $597 million. To be fair, public transit is never self-sufficient — financially, the MBTA is comparable to its peers nationwide. See this analysis of data from the National Transit Database (see page 14).
Note 2: According to the Central Transportation Planning Staff, highway travel accounts for 298,000 trips per week day into the Boston Business District (Back Bay, the South End, down town and the Seaport), while transit accounts for approximately 138,000 trips per day. And, of course, the transit ridership share declines as one moves from the core of the city.
Note 3: The state pays for all the debt service of the MBTA and additionally roughly half of the MBTA’s operating costs. The MBTA’s current financial structure was created in 2000 and since then operating costs have grown much more than debt service costs. From 2001 to 2012 operating costs rose 76% while debt service rose only 25%. The D’Allesandro Report in 2009 (p.17) made clear that savings on debt service costs were actually what kept the MBTA afloat in the first decade of the new financial structure.
Note 4: In 2009, transportation reforms ended the famous “23 and out” pension model for new employees and brought MBTA employee health care into the standard state framework. From a total compensation standpoint today, it’s hard to say whether rank and file MBTA employees are overcompensated. Comparisons in the D’Allesandro report (page 9) suggest that their hourly compensation levels are comparable to transit workers in other cities and with hourly wages in the vicinity of $30 per hour, their total package may fairly reflect their arduous split schedules. In any event, for complex historical reasons, their contracts are protected by federal labor law as well state constitutional provisions.
Note 5: As part of the MBTA service planning process in 2012, the Central Transportation Planning staff estimated (see page 9) the per ride subsidy for all the bus routes in the MBTA system. Subsidies ranged from a little under a dollar per passenger ride to over $10 per passenger ride. Buses are the most deeply subsidized mode of transit, with fare revenues covering roughly 25% of operating costs, The several rail components of our transit service — commuter ( at 48%), subway (at 61%) and “light rail”, i.e., the Green Line, (at 51%) — cover more of their costs, but their ridership would decline without feeder buses, so it’s hard to tease apart relative cost-efficiency. See this National Transit Database profile of the MBTA.