DUST OFF your banjos, because "Charlie on the MTA,'' the old song bemoaning Boston-area transit fares, is timely once again. Facing a fearsome budget deficit of about $185 million for 2013, the cash-strapped MBTA is talking about raising fares and restricting routes. The T's problems have no easy answer, but freeing the agency from the ballooning costs of The Ride -- the paratransit program for the disabled -- will be a big help. Disabled people need a reliable way to get around, but it's not reasonable to push those costs on, say, bus riders in Somerville.
With some justification, the MBTA partially blames its deficit on a nearly 400 percent increase in costs for The Ride over the last decade. The Ride, which cost slightly over $20 million in 2000 and under $50 million as lately as 2007, now has a price tag of over $100 million a year, about one-tenth of the transit authority's operating budget.
One reason The Ride has become so costly is that, in 2010, new contracts with transportation contractors caused the price per trip per passenger to increase from around $31, to over $41. If anything, these figures understate the true cost; some passengers are personal-care assistants who accompany disabled riders but don't pay the $2 fee. So the actual cost per fare-paying disabled rider is closer to a stiff $50. Meanwhile, the number of registered Ride users has increased modestly over time, from 64,000 in 2006 to 68,000 in 2010, but the number of trips per user has risen sharply -- from under 23 a year in 2006 to over 30 in 2010. This pattern is not sustainable.
The Ride is born of an unfunded mandate, one of the federal government's periodic attempts to show concern without paying the cost. In 1990, the Americans with Disability Act required agencies that run fixed-route bus and rail systems to offer complementary service to people with disabilities. Such services are of great benefit to their users, but the federal government should have paid for this form of social justice itself, instead of imposing an added financial burden on already underfunded local transit agencies.
If providing transit for disabled Americans is a national priority, why should it be paid for locally? And if these services must be locally funded, then why should the costs be paid disproportionately by T riders? Surely, car commuters, including me, have an equal obligation to pay for our share of The Ride. Instead, the MBTA, along with the bus and rail users who depend on it, faces an unfunded mandate that can expand until it eats up the system's entire budget.
The first step is for the state to separate the funding for The Ride and similar paratransit programs from the regular budgets of the MBTA and other transit agencies. These special budget lines should then be funded with general tax revenues from the state, not bus and subway fares. Some of this independent funding can be covered by diverting some of the sales tax revenue that already goes to the MBTA, but more tax funding is also needed.
The Americans with Disabilities Act may have left it to transit agencies like the MBTA to solve the issue of social justice for the disabled - an issue they were ill-prepared to handle -- but we need not continue that mistake. The long-run solution is for paratransit to be independent of the transit agencies altogether. It could be housed instead within the Human Services Transportation office of the state's Health and Human Services Department.
A recent consultant's report found that the Human Services Transportation's paratransit trips were safe and reliable, but cost only $20 per trip. Unlike the MBTA, which hires contractors to provide a service in its name, the state agency acts like a broker in a market where hundreds of vendors compete to provide trips.
The Ride's spiraling costs endanger both the MBTA's core services and its disabled customers, who are now threatened with dramatic increases in their fares. We should take this burden from the MBTA's shoulders and lodge it within a separately financed statewide agency. The T isn't equipped to provide affordable transit for the disabled.
Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of "The Triumph of the City.'' His column appears regularly in the Globe.