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The MBTA’s proposed fare increases and service cuts will hurt riders, the environment and economic growth. Yet, imagine, this is only a one-year fix.
It is time for the Commonwealth to have a plan for putting the T on stable financial footing for the long term. No more magical thinking. There are no easy answers.
When we moved the MBTA to Forward Funding in 2000, we in the Legislature — along with the governor — made a fundamental mistake by requiring the T to fund over $3.3 billion in state debt in addition to the debt already on the T’s books. More than half of the state debt was for Big Dig-related projects. In addition, growth in the sales tax, the source of revenue tapped in the 2000 reform, has fallen short of projections. So since 2000 the T has struggled with a crushing debt burden, inadequate revenue and increased operating costs.
We, as a commonwealth, must invest in our public transportation systems for the sake of our residents and the health of our economy. This can’t just happen in the State House. We need consensus from the people of Massachusetts for the Legislature to act. When Rep. Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, and I filed legislation in 2007 and 2009 that would have provided the T with additional revenue through a gas tax increase, opposition from the public undermined support in the Legislature and eventually killed the bill.
Through this debacle we learned that it is important for those of us in the Boston metropolitan area to work harder at public outreach and education across the Commonwealth. There are a lot of misconceptions out there based on inaccurate or outdated information.
Forward funding and the 2008 transportation reforms have had a positive impact on T operations. I just read that the T may have the most advanced automated customer systems in the country. Furthermore, many management and labor issues that were of concern a few years ago have been addressed.
Everyone in Massachusetts benefits from public transportation, whether we rely on it for our daily commute, spend less time in traffic because there are fewer cars on the road, breathe a little easier due to reduced motor vehicle emissions or recognize its economic benefits for business and tourism. Seniors, teens, disabled and low-income residents can get around because of the T. We have to look past our individual frustrations and regional disputes to focus on the common good.
It will take a dedicated revenue stream to address the T’s unsustainable debt, maintain a state of good repair for T assets, improve overall MBTA service and meet the needs of residents in other regions. Two options that have been proposed are increasing the gas tax or tolling Interstate 93, but both options have major detractors. How come the Middle East oil cartel can make decisions that increase gas prices a dollar or two and people buy it, but we can’t raise the gas tax a much more modest amount without a public rebellion?
The era of magical thinking must end. Public transportation is essential for all of us around the state, and all of us have to pay for it.
Alice K. Wolf is the state representative from the 25th Middlesex District in Cambridge. She is the House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs.