Once again the MBTA is facing a deficit. And once again the transit agency plans to use its riders to help balance the books.
Oh sure, the proposed fare hike is only on average 6.3 percent — just one thin dime on a bus ride — or 15 cents on the subway. (Pity the poor guy who has to come up with $25 more — $388 a month — to take commuter rail between Boston and Worcester.) The increase is projected to take $32 million out of the pockets of riders to go toward that $74 million deficit.
By itself, it doesn’t seem like that much — and yes, a good transit system costs money. But the MBTA has been raising prices steadily in recent years to make up for a period when it did not bump up fares. While the gradual increases are meant to absorb the shock to the pocketbook, it is nonetheless shocking to look back and calculate that the price of a subway ride will have gone up 41 percent, to $2.40 from $1.70 in 2011, if the proposed fare change goes through this year. Compare that to the consumer price index during a similar period, which rose 15.8 percent in the Boston area.
Ultimately, every jump in fares is a regressive move that puts the burden on the backs of people who can least afford it.
MBTA managers also know that every fare increase means a ridership decrease. This one is anticipated to cut ridership by 1.3 percent. That’s on top of already declining ridership for everything but commuter rail. Ridership was down by 2 percent for the first quarter of fiscal 2019 and fare revenue came in some 3 percent below projections, according to the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board.
Parking revenue will also take a hit to the tune of $1 million when it costs more to ride the T. “Fare hikes are an unpleasant bit of this business but they are an important part of the MBTA’s funding stream,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said. “This is, I think, a modest fare increase.”
Governor Charlie Baker also makes the “fairness” argument that those who use the system should help pay part of its more than $2 billion annual operating budget.
And if absolutely the only other way to close that deficit was to dun taxpayers in the rest of the state — who already grumble about paying for a service they don’t use — the fairness argument might carry more weight. But Baker and Poftak know full well that’s not even close to being the case. The administration made some progress at containing costs in Baker’s first term, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more that could be squeezed out of the system before turning to MBTA riders or state taxpayers.
Take, for example, newly released figures on the T’s 2018 overtime costs of $81.9 million, 13 percent higher than 2017 and 30 percent higher than 2016. In fact, last year’s overtime budget was even higher than the $80.9 million spent during 2015, with its winter from hell.
And it’s not as if the overtime were spent entirely on, say, covering bus routes. In fact, the system has some 180 “managers” who are covered by union contracts and, therefore, entitled to OT — like the foreman in the wire department who took home an extra $159,202 in overtime, more than doubling his $115,000 base pay.
The system’s chief financial officer, Paul Brandley, explained that contractual obligations — like the one that is making that wire foreman a wealthy man — along with debt service ($160 million a year) and pensions (around $100 million a year) are largely responsible for the T’s “structural deficit.”
A pension reform measure that changed retirement rules so that T workers had to have 25 years of service and be 50 years old applies only to those hired after 2012. So yes, bus riders digging in their pockets for those extra dimes are still paying for some 40-something “retirees.” The pension plan cries out for another round of reforms that would absorb the T’s system into that for other state employees — something the Baker administration shouldn’t give up on as a long-term solution to that “structural” deficit.
Help is on the way for riders — and for the system — in the form of those new Red and Orange Line cars that will increase speed and efficiency, and with that the potential to attract new riders. A more sophisticated automated fare system, coming in 2021, will allow off-peak pricing to those who can take advantage of it.
Until then, the MBTA needs to focus on increasing revenues from the fare box by getting more riders on board, not milking the ones they already have.