The good news, delivered quietly and without fanfare at a May MBTA Riders Oversight Committee (TROC) meeting was that the T will not raise fares in 2010 or 2011. The reasons are equally good – the MBTA has instituted enough cost-savings measures to make a fare hike unnecessary in the immediate future.
The good news does not, however, sound the ‘all clear’ for the nation’s most indebted transit system.
Cost savings included two big-ticket items:
1. The MBTA “restructured” a portion of its debt. That debt doesn’t go away – restructuring effectively just puts the due date on the bill off to the future.
2. Employee benefits, specifically health care coverage, have been shifted to the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) system.
Earlier this month the T announced that for the first time in recent memory they actually have a surplus of $1.2 million. The MBTA is, however, also saying that they expect this to be a one-time occurrence, and anticipate operating deficits for the next four years.
Without reservation we applaud the MBTA and MassDOT for saving riders, especially the most transit dependent communities, from another fare hike. Unfortunately the short-term win for riders does not mean that things are “fair.”
Fairness is still missing from the financial equation, due to the debt still crushing the MBTA. The T and its riders are still paying for an obligation the state took on in exchange for getting approval of the Big Dig.
As part of the legislature’s 2001 “forward funding” scheme the MBTA was told to absorb $1.8 billion in Big Dig debt. Like a holiday fruit cake that nobody wants, the cost of Big Dig mitigation, for air quality issues, was passed from the highway agency onto the MBTA. Now the T is stuck with that lead-heavy tasteless treat. The nation’s largest underground roadway project is being financed by MBTA riders, and that burden needs to be lifted.
Since 2001, MBTA fares have been raised three times. Still, the debt has grown and its effect has been displayed in dramatic and scary ways.
Fires in MBTA tunnels have been traced back to old wiring that should have been replaced years ago. Rampant breakdowns of buses and trains are often due to a failure to maintain a “state of good repair.” The 2009 D’Alesandro report, requested by Governor Patrick, found a system rife with safety issues putting passengers at risk largely due to inadequate funding.
Restructuring debt only puts off the inevitable. As the D’Alessandro report states, “Unfortunately, the repeated restructuring of hundreds of millions of dollars in debt payments achieved the exact opposite intent of the legislation that sought to transform the MBTA, and postponed the day of reckoning for repaying deferred interest and principal.”
Instead the state legislature needs to own up to its fiscal responsibilities as a matter of fairness. The MBTA didn’t ask for the Big Dig and shouldn’t be paying for it. Facilitating the smoother and faster flow of vehicles to and through the city was a monumental and likely valuable project, but it wasn’t the T’s project.
We are under no false illusion that removing the Big Dig debt from the MBTA will solve either its fiscal or state of good repair problems. The T is, however, clearly making a good faith effort to reduce all costs and maintain service, as witnessed by their recent cuts.
The legislature should follow suit with a similar good faith effort to stop forcing transit riders to pay for roadway projects. Fares may not go up this year, but without some legislative action, voters in the 175 cities and towns in the MBTA service area are guaranteed an increase soon.
Bob Terrell is Coordinator of On The Move, a coalition of nine community based organizations in greater Boston that came together in 2002 to advocate for transportation justice. See http://bostononthemove.org/ for more information.