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Starts & Stops

How T entered a tunnel of debt

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A longtime MBTA rider from Somerville stood to register an objection during a community meeting in Boston last month on the transit agency’s proposed fare increases and service cuts.

The MBTA reached a halfway point last week with the 12th of 24 community meetings on proposed fare increases and service cuts, and the numbers so far are staggering: 2,077 attendees (counting merely those who signed in) and 618 lining up to speak. Another 2,900 have sent e-mails.

Longtime observers say the public response is not just the most pronounced in memory, but also the most knowledgeable. Beyond real frustration over paying more and losing service, many speakers cite the overarching problem: too much debt, too little money, with riders asked to make up more of the difference.

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Many have called on the governor and Legislature to bail out the nation’s most indebted transit agency. But they also wonder how we got here.

“I have seen a lot of references to ‘Big Dig debt,’ ’’ wrote reader Ken Olum, who lives in Sharon and works at Tufts, riding the commuter rail and Red Line. “Does this mean that money was borrowed for building roads that the T was then obligated to pay back? I think readers’ opinions about public policy issues such as whether the gas tax should be raised to pay for transit would be better informed if we understood the history.’’

The answer is, sort of. Here’s a primer:

Forget the T’s 1964 origins. The modern MBTA was born in 2000, when the Legislature enacted what’s known as “forward funding.’’ Until then, Beacon Hill used to cover the difference between MBTA income (fares, parking, advertising, contributions from member cities and towns) and expenses every year.

For those who think that’s outrageous, consider that public transportation is subsidized around the world as a public good, valued for connecting employees with employers, easing road congestion, and reducing emissions and fossil-fuel dependence.

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But like parents sending a child off into the world, lawmakers decided the T should balance its own books. As a parting gift, they gave the T one cent out of every five cents collected from the state sales tax — but bundled that with $3.8 billion in debt.

In fairness, that money had been borrowed to pay for expanding the MBTA (with a little thrown in for maintaining an aging fleet, track, stations, and power systems). But transit systems have enough trouble meeting operating costs, much less shouldering expansion costs.

Less than half of that was considered Big Dig debt, but that did not mean that the T was now paying off the $15 billion Central Artery/Tunnel highway construction. Instead, it was paying for the companion transit work the state was legally obligated to complete, to avoid violating the federal Clean Air Act for all the traffic and emissions the Big Dig would generate.

Forward funding did some good. It taught the T to be leaner; the MBTA has reduced staffing — even while expanding service — and squeezed more money from ads, property sales, and other sources not felt by riders and taxpayers. It now stacks up favorably against peer agencies on measures such as operating expense per passenger.

But forward funding was doomed to fail. The sales tax fell well short of projections; some expenses (fuel, electricity, health insurance, federally mandated door-to-door service for the disabled) far exceeded projections. And debt payments siphoned much of what the T might have spent to run service and make needed repairs, forcing even more borrowing (and refinancing) to scrape by.

The day of reckoning appeared to loom three years ago, but lawmakers postponed a fare hike by providing an extra $160 million on top of the sales tax. Even that can no longer keep up with the T’s debt-related financial pressure, prompting it to propose raising prices on passes and fares an average of 35 to 43 percent, depending on how much service is also cut.

The scary part is that this would be just a one-year budget fix. Principal and interest payments on the debt are scheduled to climb higher in the next few years. And then there is the matter of the billions in repair and replacement needs that keep getting postponed. The Red Line carries roughly as many people through Boston and Cambridge each day as Interstate 93, but it has a fleet built partly in the 1960s and a dated signal system that limits how often the T can run trains. (And yet in the 21 years since the state last raised the gas tax, local Mass. Pike tolls have gone up just twice, while the T is poised for its fifth fare increase.)

“People should care, because transferring all that debt to the MBTA is causing the MBTA to fail,’’ said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns served by the T.

There are few options for debt relief: The state could find a new source of money for the T, assume the debt itself, or both.

Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy, notes that the state absorbed billions in debt when lawmakers disbanded the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority three years ago. That debt — along with a backlog of Pike repairs — had grown because of pressure to avoid raising tolls.

As for more money, other regions provide more varied transit funding, including metro-area payroll taxes, real estate transfer taxes, and even taxi surcharges. (Federal law prohibits diverting tolls to transit, though New York City has been grandfathered in.) Some places also forbid borrowing for transportation without dedicated taxes. The lack of a requirement here contributed to a more robust road and transit network, and a more indebted one.

“We’re charging everything on a credit card with no idea how we’re going to pay the bill,’’ Pollack said. “Households that do that get in trouble. So do states.’’

For the T and its riders, that trouble is here.

* * *

The MBTA may be financially broke, but it’s rich in apps. Transit riders in Greater Boston have access to more mobile and web applications (more than 50) than any of the nation’s largest transit agencies except New York’s MTA — though the T has about seven times as many apps per rider as the larger MTA.

Francisca Rojas of Harvard Kennedy School’s Transparency Policy Project recently praised the MBTA and TriMet (the transit system in Portland, Ore.) for doing the most to make high-quality data accessible and encourage third-party software developers to build apps at no cost to the agency and little or no cost to riders.

Writing for Google’s Policy by the Numbers blog, Rojas noted that Boston — which opened data in 2009 — had more than double the apps of Chicago (22), which followed a few months later, and quadruple that of Washington, D.C. (11), which did so the following year. Portland, the 2006-07 pioneer, has 44, while New York entered late (roughly a year ago) but has 58.

Boston had 47 when Rojas published on Jan. 27, but MBTA.com now lists 49, plus a yet-to-be-listed newcomer whose developers called to plug their arrival: Embark, a free (ad-supported) iPhone and Android app developed in San Francisco and available already in some other cities.

Embark BOS marks a departure from the first wave of MBTA apps, built by local T-riding software developers.

It is also rare in that it works even when phone service cuts out underground — not by magic but because of stored schedules and maps.

That means it does not provide the real-time arrival predictions of many other apps, but CEO David Hodge asked riders to consider what he called an elegant, easy-to-use design and some rare features, such as the ability to text directions to friends without smartphones.

(Separately, the CooCoo app that launched last week allows riders without smartphones to get bus and commuter rail predictions by text if they know their stop’s ID number, available at coocoo.com.)

But don’t just take Embark’s word for it. A few days after I spoke to Hodge — who founded the company with friends last year as an outgrowth of a college project — Embark NYC beat 41 others to win the MTA’s app contest and collect $5,000.

By comparison, the cash-strapped T awarded Jared Egan $500 when his CatchTheBus won an MBTA app contest two years ago - though Egan did take home a bus-stop sign autographed by the T’s general manager and the state’s transportation secretary of transportation.

* * *

If you’ve made it this far, you may already know that I’m speaking at 2 p.m. today at my hometown Needham Public Library, as part of the annual McIver Lecture Series. Come on by.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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