If You Give the T More Money, They Will Try to Cut Your Service

Rafael Mares | @RafaelMares2

Old myths die hard

When I was a kid, my parents rigorously enforced the rule of not swimming for 30 minutes after eating because they said it was unsafe. Turns out eating does not impede swimming at all, but many parents (including my own probably) still worry about letting children swim after they eat.

In Boston, we have our own myths. I’ve told many a visitor complaining about the lack of order in the layout of our streets that it was determined by wandering cows. But this urban legend isn’t accurate either. Most likely a lack of planning and topography were the culprits that created our confusing street “grid” – although many streets downtown were indeed once cow paths.

Fact: The T actually has so much extra money, it had to set up a lockbox for its surplus

A more recent transportation-related myth – that the T is so financially unstable that it can’t help but increase fares and cut service next fiscal year – also won’t die. I’m not saying the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is swimming in money, but the reality is that the transit agency will have more money in its next budget, which starts in July, than it can spend. Yet the T is so busy claiming to be broke, they obviously can’t afford to pay attention to their own budget.

“Really?” you say. Yes, really. Let me show you.

What would have been an $80 million gap in the T’s budget has been more than accounted for by a $187 million line item in the Governor’s 2017 budget (see pages 3, 5, and 6 in the linked PDF for details). This is to say, the T board’s own data tells us that its next fiscal year’s operating budget will have a surplus of $107 million.

On top of that $107 million surplus in next year’s budget, the transit agency expects to carry over about $25 million from this year’s budget. All together, that means the MBTA will be holding a total of $132 million in surplus money by June of next year.

Unfortunately, this surplus won’t be used to repair any additional trains, buses, signals, or power systems this coming year. Nor will it be used in any other way that would make the service more accessible, affordable, and dependable for all of us who rely on it every day. In fact, the surplus won’t be spent at all during that time period. Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack has said that the T already has more money than it can spend next year on capital projects, and therefore this significant surplus will end up in a reserve, or, as the T has called it, a “lockbox.”

It is a good idea to have extra money on hand, but that doesn’t justify reaching into the wallets of long-suffering riders for fare hikes or cutting valuable service.

The T is wrong if it seriously considers more service cuts for next year

So why, given this surplus of money, is the T considering even more cuts to service, as was recently reported? Isn’t it bad enough that the MBTA already increased fares by almost 10% and eliminated Late Night Service?

As a kid, I hated to get out of the water, even after I'd just eaten. Fortunately, the 30-minute rule was just a myth – and so is the myth that the MBTA's is financially unstable.

As a kid, I loved being in the water, even after I’d just eaten. Fortunately, the 30-minute rule was just a myth – and so is the idea that the MBTA is financially unstable in the year ahead.

It appears they value the idea of eliminating the remaining “structural deficit” more than their customers or the important role of public transportation to a thriving and healthy region. The “structural deficit” (which, for fiscal year 2017, is estimated at $80 million as referenced above) is somewhat arbitrarily defined by the T. It compares the transit agency’s costs against its revenue, but it only counts some of the funding the state provides (not the $187 million from the Governor’s budget) towards that number. This creates an illusory gap that the T has been chasing like its own tail since last year – and it perpetuates the ongoing myth that the T is financially unstable.

As a result, I don’t suspect a lot of people will be supportive of service cuts. We at CLF certainly will not. And to those who do, I strongly recommend you wait half an hour after lunch before you jump into the pool.

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