The Freedom Riders and bus boycotters of the civil rights era were out to make a point: the laws and local customs that enforced segregation were unjust, illegal and inequitable. In many cases, people of color simply attempting to ride a bus were imprisoned.
Though we now take the right to ride transit for granted, there is still dramatic inequity in the way our system serves different communities, especially in the Boston area.
Obviously, the inequities in local transit do not play out as they did in the 50’s and 60’s.
A look at the MBTA’s service map shows a variety of high-speed service to moderate and upper income communities. Once you get off the train though, low income communities and communities of color, like those On The Move works with, are underserved with less and slower service. Transit injustice is alive and well in Massachusetts.
The MBTA has a long-standing policy of investing more in communities of affluence than communities of color.
When the elevated Orange Line, which ran to Roxbury’s Dudley Square and through some of the most transit dependent communities in the region was rerouted away from those neighborhoods, the MBTA promised “equal or better” service. For 14 years that meant a bus which would get stuck in traffic, dramatically increasing both congestion and duration of the ride. Finally they installed a new “Silver bus” line which, according to MBTA figures, is still more congested and takes longer than the Orange Line that once served the community.
As part of the Big Dig, a variety of mitigation projects were agreed upon as a way to provide something to transit users as well as drivers. As we near the end of fulfilling those commitments we see that projects like the Greenbush Line, which serves the wealthier communities of Weymouth, Hingham and Scituate, has taken priority over projects like extending the Green Line to Medford. Medford is the most congested city in New England and, while it has three rail lines that go through it, has
no stations two stations. Instead it is served exclusively primarily by buses, and not enough of them.
Another example of transportation injustice in the state is funding priorities. Massachusetts has not increased its gas tax since 1991. MBTA fares, by contrast, have increased four times in that same period. Despite alleviating traffic congestion, reducing air pollution and, in many cases, being in greater need, transit riders are subsidizing their ride more than those who put a greater strain on the region.
Currently the MBTA is facing another in a series of fiscal dilemmas. The system has the largest debt load of any transit agency in the nation, despite having made millions of dollars in cuts and saved millions more through cost-saving measures such as curbing pension abuses and moving employees to the state’s GIC health insurance program. Despite having sold off numerous properties already, the MBTA is poised to engage in another round of property sales. On top of all this, the MBTA has been refinancing its debt for years due to an inability to pay off previous loans.
Much of the debt, $1.5 billion, is incongruously due to investments in roads. When the state agreed to the Big Dig mitigations, the Department of Revenue was supposed to pay for the projects. In 2001, with the implementation of forward funding, the bills shifted to the MBTA, effectively telling the transit agency to pay for road projects.
Justice, fairness and equity need just as much attention today as they did when Martin Luther King walked the streets of Selma. We need to see more of it in greater Boston.
Lee Matsueda is Chair of On The Move, a coalition of nine community based organizations in greater Boston that came together in 2002 to advocate for transportation justice.