It stinks that the MBTA wants to charge riders more when it’s also cutting service. But just because the fare hikes are an outrage doesn’t mean the T can do without the money they would generate.
Next week, the T's fiscal control board will consider two proposals for higher fares: One includes an average increase of 6.7 percent; the other, 9.8 percent. The larger hike looks like a negotiating tactic to make a somewhat smaller one more palatable. Both proposals exceed a maximum guideline for fare hikes — no more than 5 percent every two years — that transit advocates had sought, and thought they'd secured, in a 2013 law.
Yet the hikes would help the T catch up with repairs that should have been made years ago. Letting the status quo fester will only make things worse.
The smaller fare-hike plan would yield $33 million. While most individual fares and monthly passes would cost more, at least a few items would cost less; cash fares on local buses would drop by 10 cents, on the theory that those customers have the least money to spare.
The hikes are part of a broader plan by Governor Charlie Baker's administration to shrink the T's operating deficit and free up money for repairs. Aspects of that plan may prove misguided over time: The looming cut to late-night service, I'd argue, will create a hardship for service workers and hurt the region's efforts to retain young workers.
Yet the much-maligned T has no good choices. Running creaky old equipment is expensive. The agency operates under a byzantine labor contract that the T can't unilaterally alter. Meanwhile, many of the short-term cost controls that the agency can impose on its own — skimping on routine maintenance, engaging in complex financial maneuvers, letting key management jobs go unfilled — only undermine the T's ability to get ahead of its problems.
Transit advocates argue that, because the environmental, economic, and traffic benefits of public transit extend far beyond its own customers, the cost of fixing the T shouldn't fall so heavily on riders. In a fairer universe, it wouldn't.
If only Congress would increase the federal gas tax, which hasn't risen since the 1990s, and bring in new money for transportation needs of all sorts. If only more lawmakers from outside Route 128 saw the T not as a perennial budget headache, but as a vital asset supporting some of the state's greatest economic engines. If only the implicit public subsidies for driving came under the same microscope as the MBTA's costs. If only the T's member communities would kick in more to pay for its operation.
But which is more likely: Will the offending parties suddenly come to their senses and open their wallets? Or, in the absence of new revenue from fares, will the T just struggle along as it always has, while elected officials and the public berate the agency for its own failure?
Transit advocates should keep pushing for more outside money. In the meantime, though, members of the T's control board should approve the 6.7 percent fare increase before them.