Acting Executive Director, MBTA Advisory Board; Brookline resident
Past policy decisions have left the T mired in a structural deficit. The MBTA has not had a balanced budget since 2001 without resorting to fare increases, service cuts, subsidy increases, financial engineering, or budgetary sleights of hand. No amount of reform can solve the MBTA’s structural deficit. Indeed, over the past 20 years many so-called reforms suggested by numerous studies, panels, commissions, and boards recommending such short-term remedies as agency mergers, governance tweaks, property sales, and retirement age increase have all failed to prevent the ongoing cycle of budget crises.
The only way the MBTA can solve its structural deficit is to either cut service or increase revenue. Opinion polls, and public feedback during the most recent round of cuts in December have shown the unpopularity of reducing service, (cq) leaving increased revenue as the only way forward. To meet that need will require additional state funding. Importantly, though, simple injections of cash alone will not solve the problem. The T needs more money from the Legislature, but it needs those funds to go toward reducing its substantial capital debt, the source of its structural weaknesses.
This fiscal year the T will spend over $532 million on debt principal and interest payments, representing 23 percent of its spending. These are taxpayer, farepayer, and municipal subsidy funds that go not toward providing train, bus, ferry, and paratransit trips, but to Wall Street investors. While the T does receive huge amounts of money from the federal and state governments, it still must borrow large sums on its own for its capital budget, to pay for safety improvements, infrastructure modernization, and basic maintenance. This need to continue borrowing for its capital costs is the basis of the MBTA’s structural deficit and long-term problems.
The MBTA remains the only large US transit agency without a dedicated revenue source for its capital budget. By increasing funding for the MBTA’s capital program, the Legislature can help break the T’s cycle of debt, helping restore its financial health.
Economic Research Assistant at the Beacon Hill Institute, in Medway; Plainville resident
In light of the MBTA board’s prudent decision in December to scale down service, it is certainly not the time for the state Legislature to increase funding to the MBTA. The quest to give the T more money is quixotic given three major factors.
First, ridership is down due to COVID-19 and not likely to recover anytime soon. In October, ridership was at 26 percent of its October 2019 level. Furthermore, the T is projecting that by July 2021 ridership will be just 55 percent of pre-pandemic levels for bus service, 46 percent for rapid transit, and 29 percent for commuter rail.
According to the MBTA, ridership has not significantly increased since the doldrums of March and April and didn’t dramatically increase when COVID restrictions were eased in the second half of the year. It makes little sense for a functioning business to spend more on supply as demand falls.
Second, the approved cuts are not the apocalyptic, slash-and-burn measures public transport advocates had warned were coming. Sound and fury notwithstanding, the service cuts are a rational response to a system that is resistant to reform.
What you will not hear from many expressing their worry about the impact of the cuts on riders is that service is estimated to remain at 85 to 90 percent of pre-COVID19 levels for buses, 75 to 80 percent for rapid transit, and 70 percent for commuter rail.
Finally, fanciful spending increases are out of touch with a looming budget crisis poised to further squeeze vital state services. The lasting effects of COVID-19 on the Commonwealth’s fiscal health are worrying. The Commonwealth could face a sizable budget deficit this year. The Beacon Hill Institute’s revenue estimate — recently presented to lawmakers — is optimistic compared to some others, but we still project tax revenues to fall by $681 million, or 2.3 percent, for fiscal 2021 compared to fiscal 2020.
It’s fitting for Massachusetts politics that amid a pandemic straining health care services and municipal budgets statewide, many are adamant we spend more on the T. Now is not the time for the state Legislature to increase MBTA funding. We don’t need to, and we can’t afford to.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.
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