The Boston Globe yesterday reported on the fact that Silver Line buses between the Airport and South Station will be free starting tomorrow for a period of at least ninety days. You are probably wondering how the MBTA can afford giving away rides. Isn’t the T still staring a $161 million operating budget deficit for FY13 in the eye? Isn’t the MBTA planning to raise fares 23% on July 1st, if the Legislature comes through with some additional help? Won’t it have to cut significant service, if the Legislature does not?
The answer is yes to all of these questions but the idea is simple: Massport has agreed to pay for the lost revenue, since the airport benefits from the congestion relief associated with this bus. Free rides equal more riders to the airport, not only because people like to pay nothing, but also because freeing bus drivers of the logistics of collecting fares will speed up the bus line. While this pilot project does not raise any additional revenue for the MBTA, it does give MassDOT and Massport a chance to assess the feasibility of shifting more responsibility to Massport, i.e., to pay for more of the infrastructure that directly benefits Logan Airport. In particular, it will be important to gain a more complete understanding how airport parking fees would be affected.
As former Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci recently pointed out in a Boston Globe op-ed, Massport is the biggest single beneficiary of the Big Dig. Approximately half of the $15 billion Big Dig cost paid for the Seaport access road and Ted Williams Tunnel (primarily to access Massport facilities). The Logan parking garages are the largest non-airfield revenue streams for Massport, and they function only because of the access provided by MassDOT. The House members of the Joint Transportation Committee have also recently picked up on this idea, and have included Massport payments to the MBTA and purchases of MBTA property in its legislation to help bridge the T’s funding gap for next year.