Last week, I testified before the Massachusetts State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation. I was there, along with hundreds of other people, including Governor Baker himself, to comment on the Governor’s proposed MBTA reform bill, which would put the beleaguered transit system under the authority of a fiscal control board, among other reforms.
Governor Baker has challenged the state legislature to pass this bill by June 30. But the Governor’s bill is a bad deal for the MBTA and the people of Massachusetts who deserve (and need) an equitable, reliable, and safe transportation system. CLF is urging the legislature to reject this bill as written, as it fails to address key reform issues with the MBTA, while also cutting much-needed funding not only for public transit but for other parts of the state’s transportation system. If this bill passes, it won’t be the Governor who feels the pinch from these ill-advised reforms, but the people of Massachusetts who rely on this system every day.
Refinancing the Transportation Finance Act
In 2013, the state legislature passed the landmark Transportation Finance Act. This bill provided $600 million per year, on average, over five years towards the maintenance of Massachusetts’ bridges and roads, rails, and public transit system. Now, however, those funds are under threat. As proposed, the MBTA reform bill would repeal important provisions of the Transportation Finance Act, ultimately reducing revenue for the MBTA at a time when revenue reforms are critical to the system’s future health and sustainability.
The funding cuts in the Governor’s bill add up to $581 million over six years. Those cuts wouldn’t be just for public transit, however. Funds for bridge and road repair and other parts of the state’s transportation system are impacted, too. Given that the Transportation Finance Act left a funding gap between what it authorized and what is actually needed, this additional revenue cut will mean the operations of the statewide transportation system will suffer and maintenance will have to be deferred. And that’s not good news for any of us, whether we drive, walk, bike, ride the bus, or take the train to work every day.
Putting Riders Back on the Fare Hike Rollercoaster
The reform bill also proposes eliminating another key piece of the Transportation Finance Act – one that mandates that the MBTA can raise fares by 5% every other year. The Governor’s bill would instead return the MBTA to its old (and ineffective) approach of raising fares on an as-needed basis. In the past, this usually meant that the agency held off raising fares for as long as it could, and then proposed a steep fare hike to make up for it. That model was not only ineffective at stabilizing revenue but understandably angered MBTA riders. The newly adopted system is considered best practice among other transit agencies across the country. But if the Governor’s bill passes as is, then all of us who rely on the MBTA will be dealing once again with unpredictable – and unreasonable – fare hikes.
Capping Critical Funding Stream
Another important, but less well understood, part of the Governor’s bill would cut specific funding from the MBTA – $220 million over two fiscal years. This seems like exactly the wrong tactic to close the MBTA’s budget gap and maintain reliable service. Limiting state contract assistance as proposed could leave the agency with no choice but to cut services at a time when transit service is needed more than ever. With service cuts, the long waits and erratic service riders experienced this winter could become the norm for many of us – an ironic and clearly unacceptable result of a “reform” bill.
Charging Riders for the Transfers
Finally, Governor Baker’s bill seeks to remove the law that requires free or substantially reduced price transfers for riders whose commutes involve switching from one mode of transportation to another. But charging people more for the inconvenience of having to move from, say, the bus to the subway, is not only counterintuitive, it is likely to hurt those riders who can’t afford to pay a double fare the most. We would all cry foul if an airline charged us more for fares requiring a connection than for nonstop flights; we actually expect to pay less for a stopover. Charging more for a connection on public transportation is no different – and certainly adds up more quickly for those for whom the T is their primary means of transportation.
Missing Key Reforms
Even as the Governor’s bill proposes these ill-advised changes to revenue structures for the MBTA, it fails to include some key recommendations made by the Governor’s own Special Panel to Review the MBTA. Key among these is a requirement to take employee salaries out of the agency’s capital budget. The Transportation Finance Act of 2013 required the phasing out of this inefficient practice at MassDOT. Now, it should be required of the MBTA. While this shift would require new operating support from the Commonwealth, it ultimately lowers the MBTA’s overall labor costs by reducing interest payments on capital expenses.
The Special Panel also proposed creating a new, protected capital fund dedicated to rehabilitation and modernization of the system. By basing the fund on 5- and 20-year capital plans, the MBTA would stabilize its capital expenditures and ensure more regular ongoing maintenance practices – ultimately creating a more reliable system for riders.
Take Action: Contact Your Legislators
The bottom line is that this bill as written is irresponsible. The Governor’s Special Panel was right that fixing the MBTA requires both reform and revenue. But the Governor’s bill actually cuts revenue for the state’s entire transportation system – while leaving out important reform measures recommended by the Governor’s own advisors. It’s bad math for the MBTA and a bad idea for the people of Massachusetts.
Join CLF in urging Massachusetts’ legislators to pursue more balanced and effective legislative solutions that will create the 21st-century transportation system we need to ensure a healthy economy and thriving communities across the Commonwealth. Click here to take action today.