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OPINION

Protect essential workers by protecting MBTA service

Efforts to strengthen — not hinder — their ability to perform their jobs, earn an income, and participate in the COVID-19 economic recovery must be prioritized, not cut.

A MBTA Red Line train headed towards South Station on a weekday morning during the coronavirus pandemic.
A MBTA Red Line train headed towards South Station on a weekday morning during the coronavirus pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Maria is an overnight hospital worker who disinfects coronavirus-sullied rooms after I treat sick patients. She is essential in the fight against the pandemic. Maria depends on a bus to transport her across Boston in the late hours of the night. Without the bus, she can’t get to work keeping her emergency room colleagues — including me — safe from COVID-19. And if she can’t get to work, she can’t support her family and her community, which have struggled mightily during the pandemic.

Maria’s story illustrates how transportation justice is vital to health and economic justice. MBTA leadership has proposed drastic cuts to bus and subway service — including eliminating 25 bus routes and reducing subway service by 20 percent — that will severely impact workers like Maria.

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Just as I cannot detach the medical emergencies I see in the ER from systemic issues plaguing vulnerable communities, MBTA officials must think and act accordingly before moving ahead with proposed service reductions. Cutting MBTA services in the midst of a public health and economic crisis will exacerbate inequities, burden essential workers, and impede our efforts to address long-term transportation and climate resiliency goals.

Few have sacrificed more during this pandemic than residents of low-income communities, many of whom are Black and Latino. COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to disproportionately impact them. But the disparity doesn’t end there. In these communities, COVID has meant food insecurity, eviction notices, and stubborn unemployment numbers. And now the threat of cuts to transportation lifelines.

Before the pandemic, 42 percent of MBTA bus riders came from households designated as low-income, and half were minorities. Many of these riders live in households without access to a vehicle. These riders depend on public transportation to go to work, buy groceries, see their doctor, and conduct a whole host of essential tasks. Limiting their transportation access means adding to the inequities already made worse by the pandemic.

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Essential workers will also feel the burden from service cuts. While others are able to work from home, people on the front lines of COVID — whether they work with me at Boston Medical Center or stock grocery shelves in a Gateway City — have never stopped going to work. Essential workers have kept our economy and health care system afloat during the pandemic. Curtailing the second surge will be dependent on their well-being. Efforts to strengthen — not hinder — their ability to perform their jobs, earn an income, and participate in the COVID-19 economic recovery must be prioritized, not cut.

Furthermore, implementing austerity measures will stunt the progress required to advance equitable transportation and environmental agendas. It’s like trying to run up a hill that we’re making steeper. The tougher it gets, the longer it will take to climb and less likely to summit. Studies have already shown that in addition to the threatening carbon footprint automobiles create, the particulate matter they unleash is linked to respiratory disease, including higher rates of COVID-19.

To tackle the transportation problem, therefore, is also to fight for climate resiliency and better health outcomes. MBTA service reductions are ideologically inconsistent with policies and projects that can usher in comprehensive, healthy, and equitable prosperity — like expanding commuter rail service east to west and north to south, supporting regional transit authorities, and recommitting to a vision where housing and transportation goals are inextricably linked. These cuts will not be immediately restored when a vaccine is widely available and white-collar workers return to their offices. MBTA officials have said that restoring service reductions may take years, not months.

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Without question, the MBTA faces a multitude of challenges that predate the pandemic. However, a recent MBTA Advisory Board report concluded that the deficit may not be as large as first suggested. Despite the fiscal challenges, good faith efforts have been made by several stakeholders. The federal government provided close to $900 million to address declining MBTA revenues, via the CARES Act. As a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, I voted with my colleagues in March to raise $600 million in transportation revenue, dedicating funds directly to the MBTA, using a balanced approach that includes raising taxes on wealthy corporations. MBTA riders have also sacrificed by paying increasing fares — four times since 2012.

Ultimately, the question the MBTA must answer is: Who will bear the burden of MBTA service reductions? And have those communities already borne enough? Viewing the problem — and its corresponding solutions — through an equity lens can lead to a better appreciation of the intersection between transportation, public health, climate change, and the economy. And that understanding should halt any effort to move forward with proposed MBTA cuts.

Dr. Jon Santiago is the state representative for the Ninth Suffolk District and is an emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center. Follow him on Twitter @iamjonsantiago.

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