Transit Injustice Today

Cross-posted at Blue Mass Group.

January 19, 2011

TRU members protesting transit injustice

Martin Luther King Day is an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of a great man. It is also an opportunity to reflect upon the goals he worked toward throughout his life: justice, fairness and equity.

Those goals transcend all facets of life: job security and compensation, civil rights, education, and transportation.

American history is rife with transportation injustices, and Massachusetts is no exception. Today, just as in the 50's and 60's, transit-dependent riders in lower-income communities and communities of color are relegated to the back of the bus in terms of funding, prioritization, and service availability.

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, lower-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 longstanding policy of investing more in affluent communities than in lower-income ones.

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 that would get stuck in traffic, dramatically increasing both congestion and the duration of the ride. Finally, they installed a new "Silver Line" bus 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 benefits to transit users as well as to drivers. As we near the end of fulfilling those commitments we see that projects like the Commuter Rail’s 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 an economically diverse city with a number of transit-dependent communities and, while three rail lines go through it, it has only two stations. Instead it is served primarily by buses, and there are not enough of them.

The state’s funding priorities are another example of transportation injustice. Massachusetts has not increased its gas tax since 1991. MBTA fares, by contrast, have increased four times in that same period. Despite the fact that transit riders help to alleviate traffic congestion and air pollution and are often in greater financial need than drivers, they are subsidizing the drivers’ ride more than those who put a greater strain on the region.

The MBTA is currently facing its latest 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.

Incongruously, much of the debt -- $1.5 billion -- is 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 forcing 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.