And so here we are, two years after a nearly 10 percent increase in MBTA fares, debating the merits of a proposed 6.3 percent fare hike.
Making their case for the fare increase, transit leaders asserted (among other things) that it’s good to have regular, predictable “small” increases. The argument would have greater force if it were applied to all transportation modes, but it’s not. Persistently, continually, only transit and rail riders are asked to dig deeper to pay for their mobility services. Increasing T fares in the absence of a policy that raises the state gas tax and Uber and Lyft fees at the same time has large implications for everyone.
Here’s what we know: Ridership goes down after a fare increase, and the riders being pushed away are largely those who choose to take the T, not those who have to take it. That’s because wealthier people have choices: They can drive or take an Uber or Lyft. The higher the transit fare, the easier it is to justify paying a little more to hop in a car, whether your own or an Uber.
It’s easy to fall into the mental trap of thinking about the various modes of transportation as distinct and disconnected. But that’s not true. Each approach to mobility has an impact on every other approach.
Safe cycling is directly dependent upon the way our roads are designed and constructed, and upon driving behavior. Traffic congestion exists in part because of inadequate rail and transit options, as well as poor land-use choices. Bus transit is diminished because roadways and traffic signals fail to offer priority, leaving buses (which move lots of people and use very little space) to sit in traffic caused primarily by less efficient single occupancy vehicles.
If you wanted to change course, you’d create a system that charged people fairly and proportionally for their mobility. We don’t do that. Instead, our approach to funding transportation maintains rigid silos harkening back to outdated 20th-century thinking, with serious negative consequences.
The state gas tax has only been increased once since 1991. Voters in 2014 rejected an important reform to adjust the tax for inflation, doubling down on the subsidy we provide everyone who drives on our roads. During that quarter century, we built the Big Dig, embarked on the Accelerated Bridge Program, built a bypass to the Sagamore Bridge, rebuilt the Whittier Bridge, paved thousands of miles of roads, and expanded interchanges — all without increasing the gas tax save for a paltry three-cent hike in 2013. The end result is that we have consistently reduced the buying power of that tax.
I support a new approach to raising new transportation revenue, one that treats all modes fairly by raising the cost of each at the same time and with some proportionality. That means raising TNC (Uber and Lyft) fees and the gas tax at the same time and in the same proportion as MBTA fares. I exclude tolls from this equation at the moment because today’s tolls in Massachusetts are inherently inequitable, given that they only apply to people driving on the Turnpike or on or through the Boston harbor crossings.
Although it won’t make up for past mistakes, we can begin by accepting the simple premise that from now on, charges for all modes of transportation should rise together, in order to keep some measure of fairness and balance. Such an approach would recognize the interconnected nature of the various modes of transportation. Coordinated increases would also make it less likely that a T fare hike would push people onto less sustainable modes.
How do you make this happen? With a law that triggers automatic increases to the state gas tax and TNC fees whenever T fares are hiked. But for this to happen, citizens have to realize that we’re all in this together. Transit and sustainable-mobility advocates have embraced the idea that people should be empowered to push for change. This is captured in the expression “It’s Our Move,” which is a way of saying, “We’re all in this together.” Whether we are driving on intolerably congested highways or riding on an intolerably crowded train or waiting too long for an intolerably unpredictable bus, or cycling on an intolerably unsafe street, we all have to realize that our transportation choices have impacts on everyone else, for good or ill.
This is an initiative that should be introduced in the legislature and enacted into law before MBTA fare hikes take effect on July 1.
Can it happen? Yes — with enough pressure by citizens.
It’s your move.James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters Board of Directors.