MBTA and Debt Avoidance

The MBTA has proposed two plans, both containing drastic fare increases and service cuts, to help balance its budget. On February 1, a hearing was held at the Hennigan Community Center in Jamaica Plain for residents to comment on the plans. Of the sixty-plus people who spoke, not a single person chose one plan over the other. Except for a Northeastern University journalist who longed for an interview with T officials and thus maintained neutrality, all declared both plans unacceptable.

A packed Hennigan Community Center
A packed Hennigan Community Center
The MBTA (T) has found itself in this situation for two reasons. In 2000, the State Legislature forced the T to fund itself and granted it 20% of sales tax receipts. Those receipts have not met projections. The Legislature also saddled the T with $3.6 billion in debt, which has since ballooned to $5.2 billion, payments on which consume 30% of its annual operating budget.

MBTA officials know that simply meeting this year’s budget will not do much for the long term. Even if all proposed cuts are made and all fares increased, budget shortfalls will continue. Repeated service cuts and fare increases will lead to system failure.

A speaker holds up a map of bus routes eliminated under the second scenario
A speaker holds up a map of bus routes eliminated under the second scenario
Rather than appealing directly and publicly to state officials to forgive the debt or provide more funding, T officials have instead chosen to scare riders into doing their job for them.

This is a cynical ploy. And while it may be effective, it comes at the expense of some of the poorest residents of the state, those who have most to fear if the proposed plans are approved.

A Milton man with multiple disabilities pleaded that “folks with disabilities need the service.” A high school student afraid that poor friends would no longer be able to afford the train said, “I am so mad right now that I was going to say a curse but I’m not.”

An 18-year resident of Jamaica Plain who uses both the MBTA and The Ride said he didn’t understand how people on limited incomes can afford the fare increases. A man with deteriorating vision who chose to move to Roslindale for the public transportation said he will be “cut off” if the two bus lines within walking distance, the 39 and the 51, are eliminated. A spokesperson for the Back of the Hill apartments, which house physically challenged and elderly people, said that the majority of the residents depend on the T and asked T officials to remember that “if you are fortunate, one day you will be elderly too.”

Occupy the T sign
An Occupy JP protester holds up a sign at the hearing.
Despite the T’s offer to “start the discussion,” feedback from the meetings won’t change what’s been proposed. Possibly recognizing this, many of the speakers at the Hennigan Center turned the microphone around and spoke to their fellow citizens. The elected representatives also did most of their speaking to the citizenry.

State Representatives Russell Holmes and Sonia Chang-Diaz both warned that a gas tax increase would be politically difficult because reps from other parts of the state refuse to support it. The gas tax was last raised in 1991; MBTA fares have been raised three times since 2000. Governor Deval Patrick, who had proposed a gas tax increase in 2009, is now no longer in favor.

David Jenkins (T Riders Union and Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project) had this to say:

“The first thing I want to say to Secretary Davey, with all due respect, we read in the paper the other day a quote from you saying that one of the things coming out of these hearings is that people are strongly opposing service cuts and more open to fare hikes. [asks the crowd] Is that true? [Crowd answers “No!!”] It’s not true. This is my fourth hearing. Other people from our organization have been at other ones as well. That is not the case and I hope you will set that record straight.

“The thing that has been coming out of these hearings and has been clear is that people oppose everything that’s on the table. People oppose every fare increase, people oppose every service cut. And the reason why we oppose it is that it should not be our burden. It should not be on the riders to shoulder the burden for Big Dig debt, for bad State House policy (Forward Funding).

David Jenkins speaks at the MBTA hearing
David Jenkins speaks
“We know that there are ways that the MBTA can make up more revenue, things that should be looked into and done to close this deficit. For example, we could save money by ending the commuter rail contract. That’s been studied; it’s evident. Also, having that contract, they get penalties when they don’t provide on-time service. We should have been penalizing them millions of dollars over the last few years and we didn’t and now we are going to pay for it. There’s also ideas like in Chicago they have a University pass system. That’s been studied. We know we can bring in an extra sixty million a year in fixed revenue by implementing that in the Boston area, at least baseline, and we haven’t made progress on it…

“This is an attack on riders. We know it’s an attack on riders. We know that you know. And with all due respect, I know that you guys don’t want to attack youth and students and elders and disabled and your ridership — we all believe in public transit — but you are attacking us. You need to call off the entire thing.

“Passing the buck is not acceptable. Being the bureaucrat or the politician or the functionary that says my hands are tied and I’m going to be the one that makes it so that children can’t get to school, so that the dropout rate goes up, so that families who are struggling to decide between paying for the T and feeding their children, so that they have to make that decision in a more difficult way. You guys are making decisions that are going to crush people. And you shouldn’t do it. And I know you are saying that your hands are tied but you should have the moral and ethical guts to say I’m not going to be in this job and do this. Stand up for people. Stand up for the riders. The T is a public service and is a public good and it benefits everyone.

“The truth is that even our own representatives and senators are off-message. If you’re saying that public transit only benefits the riders, then no wonder the other senators and representatives can’t get it through their head that they need to support the MBTA and all the regional transit authorities in the state. Public transit is about the health and well-being of our entire economy, not just for Boston, for Massachussets and the entire region, for employment, for the environment, for the climate, for the health care system. Everything depends on it…”

More from the JP hearing:

Hearings at other locations:

See also:

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