We demand real solutions to MBTA problems

May 12, 2015

Yesterday, legislators held a State House hearing on Governor Baker’s proposed MBTA legislation, just over a month since full service resumed system-wide. Developed out of recommendations by a rapid response panel, this legislation claims to address the tremendous problems exposed by the brutal winter—but unfortunately will create an even bigger disaster if implemented.

State House hearing on Baker's MBTA plan on May 11

“This is a distraction,” said Kalila Barnett, Executive Director for Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE). “Instead of proposing real solutions, the Baker administration is using the winter to advance a deceptive agenda. These so-called ‘reforms’ will create more economic inequality and throw years of disinvestment on riders while privatizing public services to enrich wealthy interests. It’s time to build off of 2013 and move toward a vision for public transportation that serves the needs of riders and a thriving region.”

Maintain the MBTA fare cap

When the MBTA proposed a massive 43 percent fare increase in 2012, including doubling the price of Student Passes and raising the cost of our paratransit service a whopping 150 percent, the public was rightly incensed. With partner organizations in our Save the T Coalition, we fought back, organizing thousands of riders and cutting the hike down to 23 percent. The next year, we worked with the Legislature to prevent unpredictable and destructive increases from threatening riders again.

The Transportation Investment Act of 2013 limited MBTA fare increases to no more than five percent every two years, providing both the T and riders a sense of financial security. Now, the Baker administration seeks to obliterate this protection, saying there is no plan to raise fares anyway. However, if this sentiment is genuine, there is no need to remove the fare cap. Demolishing the law does not reform or repair the system—instead, it shifts the responsibility of ensuring a functioning, financially-sound system from elected officials to the backs of riders.

Invest in the T

The budget released by Governor Baker was accompanied by much fanfare amid assertions it increased MBTA funding for Fiscal Year 2015-2016. This is blatantly, unmistakably false. The 2013 Transportation Act allocated $202 million for the next fiscal year, making Baker’s proposed $187 million a cut of $15 million, after already cutting $14 million from this year.

Not only is the budget cut disingenuous, the proposed legislation refuses to provide any additional MBTA funding. In the face of countless experts warning that the T is in dire need of resources, the revelation of a $6.7 billion floor in maintenance backlog, millions lost from an unprecedented winter plus the estimated $5 million giveaway from discounted May passes and free fare day, and years of failure under the mantra of reform before revenue, this plan amounts to deliberate, willful negligence.

Anyone can see that constricting funding, in combination with jettisoning the fare cap, results in the same nightmare scenario we have been dealing with since forward funding in 2000: To stay afloat, the T will be forced to slash service—like the recent late-night service cuts—and raise fares higher and higher. Decreasing affordability and reliability pushes more riders off the system, resulting in revenue losses that effectively cannibalize the MBTA.

As riders, we don’t need special panels to tell us the MBTA is underfunded. We depend on outdated infrastructure every day and suffer the interruptions and delays when equipment inevitably breaks down. Yet, the Governor’s disinvestment of this essential public good continues. The MBTA is still struggling under the weight of the enormous Big Dig debt he placed on the authority when he was Secretary of Administration and Finance in previous administrations. His proposed legislation furthers this terrible legacy: Instead of making amends for the mistakes of the past, he’s placing blame on the people and policies that keep the T moving.

Uphold the Pacheco Law

In a clear show of ideology trumping common sense, Governor Baker has proposed suspending the Pacheco Law—the safeguard ensuring that projects contracted outside of the MBTA must be more cost effective than performing them in-house. For an administration ostensibly focused on reducing waste, this move is grossly hypocritical and a poorly-veiled step towards privatization.

The abysmal commuter rail service this winter shows that outsourcing public transit is not a viable solution to systemic problems. Issues as basic as collecting fares from passengers have stymied Keolis, not to mention larger ones like keeping locomotives in a good state of repair. The Pacheco Law shields the Commonwealth from expensive boondoggles, a fiscally-sound policy.

Respect workers

One of the panel’s most outrageous claims is the number of missed work days by MBTA employees. There is no way around it: Baker’s absenteeism numbers are an outright, reprehensible lie.

We have come down hard on the T in the past for dropping bus trips due to lack of equipment or staff. But cooking absenteeism numbers to smear and devalue MBTA employees is mudslinging, partisan politics at its worst. Real absentee numbers do not include training time, vacation days, parental leave or holidays, and are calculated honestly, not fraudulently. It is not difficult to determine percentages—this is middle school math—so deliberate errors that inflate numbers have no place in this conversation and should not be tolerated by the Legislature.

Like much else in the report, this assault on workers is nothing more than a ruse designed to sway public opinion in favor of dismantling benefits. These funds can then feed the costs of aging infrastructure, making the system more attractive for corporate takeover. We believe that the T should be held accountable for absences that result in dropped trips. However, a missing trip hurts riders once. Lying about the numbers to push through an insidious agenda hurts riders in perpetuity.

Moreover, residents of the Commonwealth have demonstrated that we are a state where workers should be valued. We believe that sick time is necessary. We want our T operators—already in highly dangerous jobs—to be healthy and alert, and avoid driving us when ill or preoccupied with ailing family members.

Operate with integrity

Finally, given the previous lies and misinformation, how are riders supposed to trust an MBTA fiscal control board that will be two-thirds appointed by the governor? Where is the requirement that its members actually ride the T on a regular basis and have no conflicts of interests or a financial stake in outcomes? How can members who have the privilege to volunteer 15 to 20 hours a week understand the needs of working class, transit-dependent riders?

Baker’s legislation ignores actual issues, preferring to manufacture controversies to forward untenable solutions. It’s time for decision-makers to listen to riders and address the real problem: We need to invest in and sustainably fund the MBTA, and the entire system needs to be accountable and transparent to the public, from the governor down.

A first-class public transit system connects us to our families, friends, classmates, co-workers, community and beyond. It is essential for growing a strong economy, building a greener future and becoming a world-class region. If the Legislature accedes to Baker’s plan, we will lose all this and more. Low-income communities and communities of color will be hit the hardest—the same communities Baker visited and professed to care about while campaigning for election.

In the end, riders will be left paying more for worsening service—footing the tab for years of legislative inaction. This would be our winter’s real MBTA apocalypse.