March 5, 2015
It's been a long and tough winter for those of us in the Northeast, one that has been especially damaging to EJ communities and the MBTA.
Politicians in the State House have turned the T into a house of horrors. The only way we can fight our way out after this winter is to fix it, fund it and make it fair.
Fixes need to go beyond replacing snow-damaged motors and address the deeper structural deficiencies, like the unfair debt burden, that eat away at basic maintenance. Funding should ensure that the MBTA can reliably meet the needs of a growing region, rather than expecting that record ridership can be carried by the same level of broken-down service.
And, as this frigid winter has put in stark relief, youth and low-income folks depend on public transportation. Solutions for the T must make the system equitable and ensure that all riders have access to affordable, first-class service.
Thank you for your support of transit justice!
See our full statement below.
Nightmare on Park Street
The battle for the survival of the MBTA is in our hands
Seeing the deplorable state of the MBTA this winter is like watching a poorly-made slasher film where the ending is obvious to everyone except the blundering, oblivious characters. Someone at a party neglects to close a door or other guests decide it's a good idea to explore the cellar during a black out - cut to the remaining partiers being just astounded when bodies start piling up in the corner.
The worst part? This crime scene was preventable.
In the past month and a half, we've dealt with: Weather forecasts more accurate than real-time bus tracking, unplowed Silver Line bus lanes, passenger strandings on the Red Line tracks in Quincy, the Mattapan Trolley shutting down so much its regular schedule is no schedule, Green Line branches indefinitely out of service, riders crowded onto Orange Line platforms waiting hours for trains that arrive too full to board, commuter rail trains delayed, delayed, delayed, then cancelled, one after another, and ferries grounded by a frozen harbor. Not to mention multiple system-wide shutdowns and early closings.
Charlie Baker's Baby
As we watch in horror, the MBTA is falling apart due to decades of neglect and our legislators binge-playing their favorite game of kick the can. After the disastrous forward funding legislation passed in 2000, the MBTA took a penny of the sales tax in exchange for shouldering the state's debt for legally required Big Dig mitigation projects. Yet, instead of steadying the T's finances, forward funding triggered a series of implosions when its generous projections proved overblown. Sales tax funding fell as online shopping took off, followed by the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession that drained the resources of working families and grew the poverty rate, particularly in black and Latino households. Fuel costs also rose - becoming a major burden for one of the biggest users of energy and electricity in the state.
With interest, the T's debt has now ballooned to a staggering $9 billion, giving the authority the title of the public transit system with the highest debt burden in the US. Governor Charlie Baker, then-Secretary of Administration and Finance, oversaw Big Dig financing, leading to the debt transfer that has expedited the corrosion of the T into the liability it is today. Debt service payments totaled $424 million this year, eating up nearly a quarter of operating expenses and two-thirds of fare revenue. If some of this money was freed up, $100 million would be enough to add three rush hour trips on all 15 Key Bus Routes every day for a year. $125 million would be enough to add an extra 35 daily trips on the Red Line for a year.*
The $9 billion debt can't be paid back by reorganizing the authority, cutting workers' healthcare or next year's likely five percent fare increase. The only way to solve this is for our elected officials to do their job and tackle the root cause of the problem: take back the Big Dig debt and find sustainable ways to fully fund the system. Many years of disregard with the occasional superficial fix - like small bandages on a gaping wound - have eroded the MBTA's ability to keep buses and trains in proper running condition. T workers routinely perform near-miracles coaxing obsolete motors back to life, even forging no-longer-manufactured parts in their own blacksmith shop.This week, it was revealed that the cost to bring the system into a state of good repair has surged to $6.7 billion, more than double the $3.1 million estimated six years ago.
It's unconscionable that the fourth biggest transit system in the US has so few resources that employees - from temp hires to senior management (and prison crews, using modern-day slave labor) have to manually shovel the lengths of the Red Line's JFK to Braintree branch and the Mattapan Trolley line - over 11 miles of track. While the T struggles with 19th century technology, the lack of concern on Beacon Hill is reminiscent of medieval times.
Silence of the Legislators
Our State House leadership appears to want power, but not responsibility. Legislators who advocate for the people are outnumbered and can face consequences for speaking up. When MBTA employees are caught nodding off in booths, they are summarily fired (with public ridicule descending like rupturing ice dams). When legislators fall asleep on the job, or worse - are willfully negligent - they can get reelected, and gut term limits to maintain control.
Years of in-depth reports have shown the MBTA to be in a severe and deteriorating crisis. When Governor Patrick charged former John Hancock CEO David D'Alessandro to study the state of the MBTA in 2009, with predictably devastating results, not a single legislator contacted D'Alessandro afterward. No one called to see how they could help, to ask any questions or even thank him for his service.
This utter lack of courage made outgoing-MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott's frank and honest press conference in February ever so more striking. Hearing an official actually speak the truth about what riders witness every day was shockingly refreshing, and so unusual it made headlines for days.
When our elected officials fail, we all suffer. This is true whether we're drivers sitting in gridlock when people give up on transit, riders who have endured the past 15 years of fare hikes and service cuts, or businesses that depend on the T for employees and customers. And like the extreme weather we're living through, these hardships hit low-income folks the hardest - see firsthand accounts of the impacts from Hakim and Louise of our T Riders Union.
People of color and those with low-incomes are among the most transit-dependent among us. Decades of focusing on moving people from outside the city to the downtown core have mostly failed to benefit residents of densely populated areas like Roxbury, Dorchester and Chelsea. One of the repercussions is a disparity in travel times, for instance, black bus riders spend 66 more hours waiting, riding and transferring on the T each year than white bus riders.
For our system to be successful, all modes have to function well and in synchronicity with each other. World-class cities and regions don't exacerbate inequality by providing first-class service to rail transit, second-tier service to the subway and third-rate service to buses. If all modes were held to the 95 percent on-time standard that our commuter rail operator is expected to meet, the benefits to passengers would be enormous. For instance, the MBTA's top 11 bus routes carry more riders each day than the whole commuter rail system.
38 Days Later
All of us live in a community, a town or city, a county and a shared region. We depend on each other in ways big and small, whether it's neighbors keeping sidewalks shoveled so pedestrians can pass, or collectively contributing to keep the streetlights on and our emergency services funded. A reliable, functioning and convenient public transit system serves us all, whether we ride it or not. We need the MBTA to get our teachers and students to class, our doctors and nurses to hospitals, and clerks and baristas to supermarkets and coffee shops.
The T is the circulatory system that keeps our neighborhoods alive, linking us to work, school, healthcare, entertainment, our friends and families and more. It drives the economic engine of our region, leading to a stronger and healthier Commonwealth. Much has been made of young people increasingly abandoning car ownership, whether by choice or due to high costs. Indeed, the MBTA's ridership is rising and continues to break monthly records. If we don't fund full service and tackle the maintenance backlog of the T now, the scale of future disasters is going to exponentially worsen.
While the past couple months may be regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime event, climate change is causing extreme weather to become more common. Investing in public transportation is not only good for residents and the economy, it plays a crucial part in reducing the impacts of climate change. Sadly, as things stand now, system failure will be the norm unless our elected officials make the MBTA a priority.
Massachusetts Chain Saw Massacre
Yesterday, Governor Baker released his fiscal year 2015-2016 budget, proposing $187 million in funding for the T, which appears to cut about $15 million from the $202 million promised in the 2013 Transportation Investment Act. This comes after slicing another $14 million from the T this year.
Baker also convened a panel to diagnose problems at the T and recommend solutions by the end of March. His chair resigned after questions of judgment and nearly $200,000 in unpaid taxes surfaced, leaving among the members a former Chair of the House Committee on Transportation who was instrumental in passing forward funding legislation.
In contrast to previous studies, it remains to be seen whether the panel recommendations will have any teeth. Aside from simply updating and adjusting the 2009 D'Alessandro report to inflation, many solutions have already been proposed, such as the need to transfer Big Dig debt and implementing a University Pass for area colleges. No matter what happens, if sustainable funding isn't on the list, this will have been no more than a charade to defer culpability until the system resumes normal operations and public rage subsides. Let's hope we don't have to wait for another catastrophe before effective action is taken.
As for the Legislature, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo has paid lip service to tackling MBTA problems with no commitment of additional funding, and House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano has already called Baker's plan "crazy," in the sense that he doesn't think the T should be given any funding. (Of the possible outcomes from this meltdown, that might be the craziest move of all.)
This is (Not) the End
Fortunately, unlike a B movie, we have the power to flip the script, provide rigorous direction, and if necessary, replace bad actors when the time comes. We can call on our legislators to take real, sustained action.
We need to contact them now, as we watch the T slowly recover from the brutal winter; in the spring, when torrential downpours drip deep into underground stations; in the summer, when busted ACs cause sweltering buses and heat warps rail tracks; and in the fall, when matted leaves create slippery conditions that slow and delay trains.
We must also call when our buses arrive on time, when we make a connection without waiting, and when our driver smiles and wishes us a nice day - because good service without increased investment is nothing more than a mask that shields a killer before the next reckoning. Public pressure is one of our best defenses, a spotlight that keeps our governor and Legislature from sneaking off in the shadows as snow and media attention recede.
Our work in organizing and supporting transit justice has shown us that motivated and mobilized people can - and do - change bad endings, from rolling back fare hikes on some of our most vulnerable riders to increasing early morning bus service for workers and successfully demanding that legislators provide more (albeit partial) resources to the T. As we monitor developments, we are continuing to organize and will take action as necessary. We must stand up for the public transportation system we all need. Our region's future depends on it.
*Operating costs are from the National Transit Database and assumes that the average bus trip is about 35 minutes and the average Red Line trip is about 45 minutes.