This post is to some extent moot:
The MBTA has proposed service cuts among other measures to balance its budget — specifically by ending weekend service on some commuter rail lines and by trimming the zone in which they offer rides to persons with disabilities back to the zone required by federal law.
Some have urged me to speak out against the cuts, which account for $17 million out of $49 million in budget balancing measures proposed within the total budget of $1.95 billion.
Of course, as an advocate both for green transportation and for people who lack transportation options, I’m troubled by the proposed cuts.
But as a seasoned observer of the MBTA, I intend to hold my fire and let them work through their budget process.
The current management team has been working very hard to break out of the typical cycle in which health care, pensions, collective bargaining agreements and other costs rise faster than available revenue.
Throughout the year, they have been making and implementing proposals to control costs. Ultimately, nonetheless, the MBTA board will need to make some difficult choices.
Prior boards have often sought assistance from the legislature to make the choices more palatable. Through the decades, state support of public transportation has grown to substantial levels — essentially, the state (with the help of cities and towns in the service area) pays all the debt service of the MBTA and roughly half of its operating costs.
I don’t see the legislature altering the support structure for the MBTA this year.
First, we have a Governor and a T board who are very committed to living within their available resources and are unlikely to ask for more funding. Second, as eager as I am to support public transportation, this is not a year in which I see a real likelihood of new state resources becoming available. The Governor’s budget proposal for next year depends on an unpopular and unlikely proposal to levy new penalties on businesses that do not provide health care for their employees.
By the time the legislature is acting on the budget — or perhaps in the months after we act on the budget — we may be facing much greater financial problems as President Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress cut federal support for health care and other state programs.
Finally, in 2018, the people will have the choice of voting on the ballot for more transportation funding through increased taxes. The legislature is unlikely to get ahead of that decision.
Beyond the financial realities, I think there is another practical reality: The MBTA management team is human and has finite bandwidth. Because they are ultimately dependent on legislative support, they have to fully respond to legislators. Legislators distract them from their mission of making the system work by raising longshot demands for additional service and by making tough choices tougher by suggesting that the choices are unnecessary.
My sense of the current team is that they are very focused and have made considerable progress on both the operational side and the financial side. They have also used the board structure that the legislature created to support a robust, ongoing public conversation about the T’s capital program.
I’m certainly not endorsing any of the proposed cuts, and if an opportunity emerges for the legislature to mitigate the cuts, I will be supportive. But for now, we politicians need to let the MBTA board do its job of publicly vetting the options and making hard choices.
Some responses (3/19, 4PM)
I’ve read through the comments through Sunday afternoon at 4PM [and now through March 27] and I thank everyone for engaging.
- I agree passionately with all those who spoke of the importance of public transportation, from a climate standpoint, from an economic development standpoint, from an equity standpoint and from a quality of life standpoint.
- I have always been and remain a strong and active advocate for more transit funding — gas tax, carbon tax, general revenues, local options — I’m all there, because I really believe we should stand behind public transit and expand it.
- But long term transit improvement is one thing, the next year’s budget is another. I do believe that we have to let the T Board listen to the public, get additional data and make their decision. It is important that they are able to say ‘no’ or ‘not any more’ from time to time. If they don’t make choices necessary to balance their operating budget, they will eat into their capital budget. Decades of exactly that behavior is what got us where we are today.
- I think most commenters understood this, but “Commuter Rail” does not mean subways or buses. There are no proposed cuts in subway or bus service. Commuter Rail means the railroad trains that run to the further suburbs.
I will make sure that the MBTA has the opportunity to review the feedback provided by all of you here. I fully support riders and others making their feelings known to the MBTA — that is an important part of the process.