Pay more and get less.
That’s the pitch the MBTA is making to riders as it struggles to fill a $161 million operating budget deficit.
It’s a draconian budget. Fare hikes that outpace anyone’s pay increases. No transit for people who work weekends or for tourists to and from the suburbs. A high impact on special services for seniors. In perhaps the nastiest move, the budget saves money by pricing out people with disabilities from the RIDE.
No one will say yes to that, and no one is supposed to. Budgeting is a political game, and in Massachusetts, its name is fear. The T wants residents to get so outraged that the state is forced to provide additional funding. Riders will still take some sort of hit, but they’ll feel relieved that it wasn’t so bad.
It’s an acceptable game because the state should provide more (and smarter) funding—preferably in the first place. We wrongly treat public transit as a safety net rather than as an asset and a treasure.
Public transit has enormous built-in financial challenges. Infrastructure and fuel costs are high. Like all large businesses and agencies, it is saddled with skyrocketing employee health care costs under our current insurance system.
But public transit also suffers from our cultural and fiscal obsession with the private motor vehicle. There would be riots if the state proposed a 43 percent hike in tolls or the gas tax, or if it paved roads with gravel because that’s the bare minimum to drive on. Can you imagine shutting down highways on the weekend to save money?
In Jamaica Plain, the state is spending $50 million to $70 million to replace a single bridge for car traffic—not for safety reasons, but for maintenance savings. That is 30 to 44 percent of the T’s deficit right there. The comparison is not direct because it’s a different type of budget with federal funding included. But the bottom line is, we always find money for our real priorities.
The MBTA is already an expert at doing more with less. Such services as the Route 39 bus have greatly improved in the past several years. But its debt load is astonishing; its infrastructure is decaying; its operating budget has projected deficits as far as the eye can read a spreadsheet.
The state not only must help plug this year’s budget hole. It also must get serious about reforming and supporting public transit. It is time to stop treating the MBTA as a leaky tire to patch and start treating it like an economic engine to rebuild.