The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — the agency that runs those Boston-Providence trains we like — is proposing to raise fares and cut services a lot and a lot, respectively. This is stupid. Public transit is great for a big bundle of reasons, but quickly: Transit reduces congestion and makes cities more compact, more walkable, more livable and less environmentally destructive. People without cars or the money to buy cars still get to have lives. Everybody wins. In a heavily urbanized area like Eastern Massachusetts, having people all buy their own little metal boxes and drive them around is a silly way to do things.
Transit helps create cities that don’t spew carbon dioxide into the air all willy-nilly. We should like it, both as college students who don’t have cars and as humans who like not having our stuff underwater. From the president on down, a big chunk of the so-called left — which supposedly dominates Massachusetts — acknowledges that mass transit should be heavily subsidized.
Nevertheless, here we are. The MBTA has laid out two awful scenarios. In one it raises fares and cuts services. In the other it raises fares even more and cuts services a little less. In both, ridership reductions are projected in the tens of millions of annual trips.
People like to rag on the MBTA. They’ve run up a $5 billion deficit! What a bunch of dunderheads! Turns out, though, we can’t really blame the MBTA for this. But we can blame some other people. Here’s why.
There are two big reasons why the MBTA has no money. Number one: Ten years ago, the Massachusetts state legislature decided, stupidly, that instead of giving the MBTA however much money it actually needed each year, the legislature would just toss it 20 percent of sales tax revenues. If people stopped buying things, reasoned the state legislature, the MBTA could just use its secret stash of pirate gold. Then the sales tax started underperforming, and then 2008 happened, and then people stopped buying things and everything went from bad to really, really bad.
Number two: When the state decided to do the Big Dig, a dumb project that sunk a highway underground and made some neighborhoods a little more accessible for only $22 billion, it made the MBTA pay for a bunch of “mitigation,” mostly transit expansions that included a commuter rail line through a bunch of rich suburbs along with a couple really nice bus routes. To make matters worse, billions in state and federal funding were tied up in the Big Dig, meaning the MBTA was left with a tab to the tune of $1.8 billion. It will have to pay interest on this every year and it is in no way the MBTA’s own fault.
The MBTA has spent the last five years cutting everything it didn’t need and some things it did, and here we are. The debt stands at a tidy $5.5 billion. Annual debt service payments are running, as of fiscal year 2011, at $393 million, or a whopping — whopping! — 88 percent of total fare revenues. So are we talking about how, maybe, as a society, we should spend a little more on mass transit? Nope. We’re talking about how much we should raise fares and how much we should cut service. It’s as if we’ve decided that we’re going to shove razor blades up our noses. We could talk about maybe finding ways to keep razor blades outside of our noses, but no — we’re going to spend the next few months debating how many razor blades we should buy, and whether we should use a twisting motion or a gentle in-and-out cycle once they’re inside.
I wish MBTA leaders were more aggressive in lobbying the state, but they are understandably cautious. Besides, that is not really their job. It’s ours. Groups like the MBTA Riders Union in Boston do really great work on this issue, as do similar groups across the country, and it’s worth getting involved if this actually matters to you. For those who live in Massachusetts, calling legislators never hurts. For those elsewhere, these fights are being played out in almost every city. There is huge momentum behind this proposed fare increase, and it may very well be that it cannot be stopped. We should keep trying, though, because there is nothing else we can do.
Daniel Moraff ’14 attends this University and writes for this newspaper.