IF YOU DOUBT FOR A MINUTE that we continue to be mired in a mid-20th Century way of thinking about transportation, consider this: in a state that recently went to the ballot box to say “no!” to a simple inflation adjustment to the gas tax, we are now having a serious debate about whether MBTA fares can be increased by 5 or 10 percent. A law enacted in 2013 attempted to establish what was considered an important principle of fairness: T fares could only be increased every other year, and not more than 5 percent at a time. Here’s the language:
“The authority shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 per cent.”
Now we have some who would like to interpret this language to mean that you can raise fares by as much as 10 percent every other year. The transportation leader of the House says “yes, of course, we meant 10 percent”. His Senate counterpart, and the senators who actually offered the amendment that became the final language, say, “No, that’s not what we meant.” That is the debate we are having in the aftermath of the great winter meltdown of our public transportation system.
I won’t weigh in on this debate because I hold to a different point of view: there should be no fare increase until MBTA service is demonstrably improved. Hiking T fares now is not justified by service quality. Imagine a company that sells sour milk thinking that the first step toward rebuilding its business is to charge more for the sour milk. We all know that it wouldn’t dare do that. Instead, it would focus its efforts on selling fresh milk. A fare hike now simply flies in the face of good business practice.
Hiking T fares now is also not justified by the T’s massive re-investment needs. Think of it: the T admits that its state-of-good repair needs total something in excess of $7 billion. A 5 percent hike in T fares might generate an additional $20-23 million. A 10 percent hike might raise something less than double that, while also driving away many riders who are either unable to afford the new rates, or who decide to shift to micro-transit alternatives such as Bridj and Uber. The problem won’t be solved – indeed, it possibly will be exacerbated – if we move to a means-tested fare system. Once the T loses customers of choice, and serves only those who use it of necessity, it is doomed.
The call for fare hikes and service cuts repeats itself during every transit funding crisis. It’s easy – or perceived to be easy – because most of the people who use the T are deemed to be politically voiceless. When I was secretary of transportation, I, too, faced calls for fare hikes and service cuts. I was prepared to hike fares if we also hiked the gas tax by 19 cents a gallon, but the gas tax lobby rose to effectively kill any gas tax increase, so we did neither. I opposed service cuts, largely because they tend to have a disproportionate impact on those at the lower rungs of the income ladder. Are there a few bus routes that serve a handful of people at a huge subsidy? Sure there are. But the level of service cuts that would be needed to make a discernable difference to the T’s bottom line is neither feasible nor consistent with running a public transportation system that ought to provide reliable access to a broad spectrum of citizens.
Why are we having this discussion? There are ways to free up significant revenue – over $300 million annually – that do not require any increases in fares, taxes, or fees. I’ve discussed these before: transferring a portion of MBTA debt to the Commonwealth, and shifting a portion of highway dollars to transit, could inject meaningful new revenue into the T to enable an accelerated state-of-good-repair program. Instead, we return to debates about how much we can hike T fares, knowing full well that, even if we do, we will not generate net new revenue sufficient to meet the enormous reinvestment challenge everyone agrees exists.
This problem is neither new nor unexpected. It is the legacy of decades of disinvestment, misleading sound bites, and can-kicking since 1991. Certainly the Baker administration inherited a problem not of its own making. Its Winter Resilience Program, investing $83 million into the system with a series of smart, targeted investments in the basics – new third-rail, heater elements, snow fencing – ought to pay huge dividends in the event we face another harsh winter. But as T riders know full well, the T needs a lot more than a winter resilience program. It also needs a spring, summer, and fall resilience program. We have an opportunity to have a breakthrough moment, but it will only come if we break down ideological walls and candidly admit that we will not have a modern, reliable public transportation system until we begin treating transit on a level funding playing field, and bring new approaches to raising transportation revenue.
I propose a five-year plan to improve the MBTA. During those five years, the following would take place:
- The T would transfer all of its so-called legacy and Big Dig debt to the Commonwealth.
- MassDOT would shift up to 10 percent of highway dollars to transit each year for five years.
- We would commit the freed-up revenue emanating from items 1 and 2 above to an accelerated state-of-good- repair program, on a pay-as-you-go basis, without additional bonding.
- Fare hikes would take place only when certain clearly stated performance metrics were met.
- The state would enact into law a Transit Improvement District (TID) program empowering municipalities to assess a daily carbon impact fee on non-residential parking, and requiring that those revenues be dedicated to improve cycling lanes, Complete Streets, and transit.
- The state would commence a purely voluntary pilot program to test the efficacy of a user-fee approach to raising transportation revenue. This approach (referred to as “VMT” for “Vehicle Miles Traveled”) can become a fair, transparent way to raise significant revenue for both our highway and transit needs. A purely voluntary pilot program should offend no one and might well prove to be a pathway toward deploying a technology-driven 21st Century revenue replacement for the gas tax.
The issues facing the T – a groaning level of backlogged, state-of-good-repair needs and the ever-present need to strategically grow and expand – can be met if we think and act with the future in mind. That future, which the present clearly reveals, is one where more people will want to rely upon a robust menu of multi-modal choices for their personal mobility. Transit will increasingly be relied upon in ways unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago.
Look at where we are placing huge bets on jobs creation and economic growth, and think about whether we have in place comprehensive mobility plans that respond to existing needs and projected growth. We have built our innovation districts – the centers of 21st Century jobs growth – in areas that cry out for better transit, cycling, and walkable districts. Our last great unbuilt districts – the 100-plus acre Suffolk Downs site and the Widett Circle site – are poised for transit oriented development. And the city’s Columbia Point district – hosting a rejuvenated UMass Boston campus as well as a presidential library, the EMK Institute for the Senate, and the state archives – urgently needs improved transit connections from JFK Station. How do we intend to respond to these needs, and fix what needs fixing, on the back of a fare increase? It’s neither feasible nor fair.
Our future does not lie beyond our control. It is in our hands. We’ve got to get it right, or face the unrelenting verdict of history that our generation, faced with an opportunity moment, chose to follow the failed pathways of 20th Century thinking, and in doing so, let the future escape to other cities and regions.
James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.