My Simple Solution to Fix the MBTA’s Funding Shortfall

A while ago, I noted that the MBTA’s budget cuts were idiotic and short-sighted, especially the weekend service cuts:

Then there’s the effect on tourism. The E train goes directly to the MFA and very close the Gardiner Museum. It always has passengers on the weekends, especially in the summer. If the MBTA thinks tourists will take the bus instead, they are sadly deluded: U.S. tourists don’t ride urban public buses, except as a measure of last resort (and even if they do, to take the T and then switch to a bus isn’t something a lot of them are going to want to do).

I put my thoughts into a slightly more coherent form and sent them along to my elected officials (because, if nothing else, we should be encouraging people to not use their cars as a small way to limit global warming). So my state representative, Rep. Martha (‘Marty’) Walz replied (I’ve left out some of the precursories, etc.; boldface mine):

Dear [Mad Biologist]:

Thank you for contacting me about the MBTA’s proposed fare increases and service reductions.

As you know, the MBTA recently proposed increasing fares and cutting service across its system to help close its projected $161 million deficit for fiscal year 2013. The MBTA submitted two proposals…[Mad Biologist: I’ve described them here, so I’ll skip this part]

Neither of the choices proposed by the T are acceptable, and I believe we must identify a third option. I am working with a coalition of legislators to find a solution that may include (1) more appropriate fare increases, (2) as few service cuts as possible, (3) additional cost cutting measures, (4) additional revenue, including a gas tax, and (5) restructured debt to reduce the T’s annual debt payments. I appreciate you sharing the link to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s MBTA Budget Calculator, which includes these proposals. It is too soon to know what the final solution will be, but I believe all options should be discussed.

We must develop a comprehensive solution for the transportation system statewide. Proposing to fund the T’s deficit on the backs of its riders ignores the reality that each mode of transportation (subway, bus, car, bike, etc.) fits into a larger systme that is woefully unerfunded. If we want a transportation system that supports job creation, moves people and products reliably and cost effectively, gives us a competitive advantage over other states, and prevents environmental damage, we must adequately fund it….

Signed with real ink too! Anyway, if you look at the MBTA Budget Calculator, three obvious points emerge:

1) The commuter rail and Green Line service cuts together would ‘save’ $7.2 million…out of a $161 million deficit. One of the most noticeable features of the T would be killed for very little gain (a related point is made here).

2) Debt service is key. In 2000, Massachusetts forced the MBTA to limit its budget to only fares, one-fifth of the sales tax, and some fees from areas served by the MBTA. This has never been adequate from the beginning, since costs rose faster than expected, and sales tax revenues were lower than expected. If the state were to reassume half of the debt payments, that covers $141 million; if the state assumed all of the debt (which, pre-2000, is what it did), that would yield $291.9 million.

3) We need to increase the gas tax by a dime and use to fund the T and fund statewide road repair. Massachusetts roads are awful. They need fixing. While a massive gas tax increase would be onerous, a dime is manageable, and it would raise at least $250 million.

Anyway, this grousing by many citizens seems to have had an effect (boldface mine):

Instead, the T hopes to use $51 million in one-time funds from the state’s motor vehicle inspection program to soften the blow on transit riders, Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said. Other sources — including $7 million in leftover snow and ice money from the mild winter, and an unexpected $5 million from a deal to lease the North Station parking garage — help reduce the amount that will need to be made up by transit riders to about $90 million, Davey said….

He said the debt service costs on the T’s billions of dollars in debt were rising, along with such costs as employee health insurance and providing service to the disabled. Fare revenue cannot keep pace, he said…

Under the plan unveiled today, subway riders using a CharlieCard would pay $2 instead of $1.70 — an 18 percent increase — while bus riders using the prepaid card would pay $1.50 instead of $1.25, a 20 percent hike. A monthly bus and subway pass would rise to $70, from $59.

Students and seniors would still pay discounted fares, but their discount would shrink. And fares for The Ride, the door-to-door service for the disabled, would double from $2 to $4 for riders in the region’s inner core while rising to $5 in a new “premium” area in outlying suburban neighborhoods, Davey said.

Instead of deep cuts to service, the T will eliminate four of its nearly 200 bus routes and reduce runs on 14 additional bus routes. It will also eliminate weekend service on three commuter rail lines, Greenbush, Plymouth/Kingston, and Needham.

But the T will largely preserve threatened ferry service and will continue running the Green Line’s E Line trolley to Brigham Circle on weekends — stopping short of Heath but not eliminating it, allowing riders to reach the Longwood Medical Area and nearby art museums — Davey said. Ferry fares will be raised about 35 percent, and the Quincy boat will be eliminated on weekends, with the goal of ending public subsidies for the ferry lines but keeping them operating.

It will be interesting to see how this all pans out.

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1 Response to My Simple Solution to Fix the MBTA’s Funding Shortfall

  1. Eric Riley says:

    In Portland, OR we are seeing our public transportation service also discussing how to deal with the budget shortfall – with the blame for most of it being blamed on “costs as employee health insurance and providing service to the disabled.” Employee pensions were also mentioned – it’s all the union’s fault that we have to cut services. I am noticing a common thread in the public transportation discussion across cities.

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