Starts & Stops

Legislators consider ways to make MBTA's ends meet

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / March 15, 2009
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Transit fare increases and service cuts were back on the radar last week as the MBTA approved a budget with a $160 million hole in it - and a prayer that Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature come up with the money to solve the crisis.

Patrick's solution to the deficit, a 19-cent gas tax increase with 6 cents dedicated to the T, has yet to attract a consensus in the Legislature.

Patrick's plan would stave off any fare hikes for at least two to three years. Without a bailout, commuters would be forced to pay 25 percent to 30 percent more in fares, while losing regular service on many routes outside of rush hour, beginning as soon as July. That could translate to fares of $2.60 for cash-payers on the subway, or $2.20 with a CharlieCard, depending on how the MBTA structures its rates.

But the state commission that provided the intellectual framework for the current transportation discussion proposed another idea in 2007. The Transportation Finance Commission said the T should raise rates about 10 percent every three years, to avoid giant fare hikes all at once, as the agency has had to do in recent years. The commission said the T would still need to make significant cuts in its workers' generous fringe benefits and that the state would have to contribute $2.7 billion in debt relief, given the T's high operating costs and the annual payments on $5.2 billion in debt that suck up nearly a third of the agency's operating budget.

While Patrick and the state Senate have embraced many of the commission's findings, there has not been much debate on the fare hike strategy.

It may be a smart idea. It may be a dumb idea. If a 10 percent hike comes in January 2010, three years since the last hike, it would hardly make a dent in the T's problems, raising something close to $20 million over the final six months of the fiscal year. Over the course of a full year, it could raise $40 million, depending on how many passengers the system lost as a result. In other words, the T would still need to trim worker costs and get significant help from the state.

But the commission's proposal does set a long-term strategy for transit fees, giving riders an idea of how much they will pay. It's tied roughly to inflation and attempts to keep the MBTA's operating subsidy close to 50 percent.

Neither Patrick nor legislators have defined a competing strategy on future fare hikes. Patrick wants to avoid a toll increase for a few years. Legislators have been all over the map, some offering no new money to prevent fare hikes, others seeking to provide a longer term fix for the T's problems with an even higher gas tax.

That leaves key questions unanswered: Will the MBTA's problems be subject to a wrenching fare hike debate and a legislative begging expedition every few years? Will poor riders have to increase their personal transit budgets by 30 percent every time the T gets in a crisis and cannot get a bailout?

These problems were supposed to be fixed in 2000, when the Legislature dedicated a penny of the sales tax to pay for the T.

But the income projections were off and the T has been operating without a safety net.

Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. said last week that fare hikes hurt the "little guy" who relies on the T - students, the disabled, the working poor. Asked if he would support a 10 percent hike, he pointed out that the T has raised fares - fairly substantially - three times since 2000.

Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who helped write the Senate transportation plan, said many low-income residents live in places where they need a car and would be hit just as much as transit riders if the gas tax goes up substantially. He said fare hikes have to be on the table, once lawmakers make structural changes to the transportation system.

"There seems to be this mentality in Boston that the most vulnerable only live in the city," he said. "There are those who are vulnerable and poor, the working poor, who live outside of the city of Boston."

Spotted turtle at risk

If the MBTA does not get a bailout, the spotted turtle better watch its back. Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. is losing his patience with the slow-moving reptile.

Last week, the T's board voted to spend $500,000 to complete special $1.5 million critter crossings along the Greenbush commuter rail line.

Aloisi, who chairs the T's board, voted to approve the final costs, but issued a warning to the project manager: "If I am forced to cut service and raise fares, I may want to come back to you and not be so kind to the spotted turtle."

Aloisi, who has promoted a number of green policies since taking office this year, said the turtle, and the elderberry longhorn beetle for that matter, would have to present their own case to the MBTA board if fiscal conditions do not improve.

The T began efforts to preserve spotted turtles under a 2004 environmental permit issued for the new rail line. In 2006, the turtle was taken off the state's endangered species list. But the T lost an appeal to stop building at-grade rail crossings and halt efforts to monitor the species' health.

"Although the spotted turtle has been delisted, spotted turtles remain extremely vulnerable to habitat fragmentation and increasing rates of road mortality," wrote Wayne MacCallum, director of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in a March 27, 2007, letter to the MBTA.

MacCallum said last week that taking a species off the endangered list is based in part on previous agreements to protect it, including the rail crossings.

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