Hobbled by Big Dig debts, the T needs new revenues

WITHOUT AN overhaul, the MBTA faces a grim future. That’s the reality reflected in the proposed service cuts and fare hikes the cash-strapped agency announced on Tuesday. Under the plan, many riders would see the buses, trains, or ferries they rely on eliminated or severely curtailed. For almost all riders, fares would go up by a third or more. The effects won’t just be felt on the T: For drivers, the threat of traffic congestion rises with every former transit rider who takes to the roads. For businesses, interruptions multiply as employees and customers arrive late or not at all.

The MBTA’s proposals are a dramatic but inevitable response to a looming $161 million deficit. And while some of the proposed service cuts may go too far, and all deserve further scrutiny, the proposal should also force an overdue discussion of the T’s inadequate state funding. The agency has relied on a series of short-term fixes - selling advertising space in stations, auctioning off surplus property - to close the gap. But those measures only delayed this day of reckoning. Now that it’s here, Beacon Hill needs to permanently fix the way the MBTA is funded - or else budgets in coming years may look a lot like this one.

The system’s fiscal woes have their roots in the unforgivable errors and overruns of the Central Artery project; repaying many Big Dig-related debts became the agency’s responsibility after a reorganization in 2000. Those new responsibilities were supposed to be offset by earmarking a share of the sales tax for the T, but those revenues haven’t met expectations. Now the T’s debt payments - around $450 million annually, and rising - gobble up a quarter of its annual budget.


Richard A. Davey, the MassDOT secretary and former MBTA head, says that the T needs a new revenue stream, but that the cuts are a necessity given where the agency stands now. He deserves credit for taking on an unpleasant task in a straightforward way (and an unsentimental one: among other things, the plan would finally put an end to tokens, which can still be used for rides).

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As an alternative to even more Draconian cuts, the call for a fare increase is reasonable: The T’s last fare hike was in 2007, and bus and subway fares are lower than in many other metro areas. And there are some intriguing ideas contained in the proposals. One measure would help fill seats that may now be empty and relieve the strain on rush hour travel by discounting reverse commutes on the commuter rail. The MBTA board is also pushing for consideration of off-peak and distance-based fares.

The T also wants to reform one of the agency’s fastest-growing costs: the federally mandated service for disabled customers, the Ride. The agency plans to start screening applicants for the expensive program itself, instead of relying on the word of the customer’s own caregiver - a system with great potential for abuse. The proposal would also raise the program’s fares more than bus and subway fares, which could prod disabled riders to take a second look at a system that has invested millions in accessibility.

Davey said the proposals were meant to be a “conversation starter,’’ and acknowledges that the details will likely change during the coming months of public hearings. But that conversation must involve more than just bickering over who should be stuck bearing the brunt of potential cuts. A long-term solution to the T’s funding gap - whether from the gas tax, sales tax, higher tolls, or some other source - is long overdue. If Massachusetts wants a world-class transit system, it has to get serious about paying for it.