THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Yvonne Abraham

Either way, T riders pay

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / March 10, 2011

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You get what you pay for.

It’s not a hard concept, until it comes to the MBTA, where we pay little and get less but can’t seem to make the connection, even with four hours on the Worcester “Express’’ to ponder it. The finances of our ancient public transit system are so messed up it will take a mountain of money and a revolution on Beacon Hill to fix them. And sadly, neither seems likely to materialize.

But before we get to the doom, the gloom.

Delays and disruption have made this a winter of deep discontent — just ask those sad hostages on the Worcester train. Even sadder: talking equipment with Brian Kane, budget and policy analyst at the independent MBTA Advisory Board.

“We’ve adopted a policy of benign neglect,’’ Kane says. “The longer we wait to maintain what we have, the more expensive it gets to fix when it all falls apart, and it is all beginning to fall apart.’’

We have $3 billion worth of unfunded repairs on the books, and that number is only growing. The newest commuter rail locomotives were rebuilt in 1998. On the Red Line, more than a third of the cars date to 1969. The entire Orange Line fleet was built in 1981. These are machines meant to last 25 years.

Did you catch a video the T posted on YouTube a little while back? It showed mechanics using hairnets to keep snow out of trolley motors. Hairnets. Ingenious, but it doesn’t exactly scream state-of-the-art.

It all goes back to the T’s cockamamie funding system. In 2000, lawmakers essentially washed their fiscal hands of the MBTA, demanding that the agency balance its budget using a share of the sales tax, fares, and other fees. In so doing, they assumed tax receipts would keep growing, and that the cost of running the oldest transit system in the country would not. Smart, huh?

Then, they dumped billions of dollars of debt onto the MBTA.

So, out of its $1.6 billion budget, the T must service $8.6 billion in debt, pay workers, and run the system. Not surprisingly, the T is battling to close a $135 million deficit projected for fiscal 2012.

Now, the MBTA does not inspire sympathy — especially when you’re waiting for a bus in subzero temperatures. And it doesn’t help that the agency has given ridiculous deals to workers, including allowing some to retire as young as 43.

But the T’s problems are much bigger than its inefficiencies. For example, even if you nixed the agency’s entire pension obligation — currently $58 million — they’d still be $77 million in the hole. Reforms help, but they don’t even approach the drastic remedy needed here.

These are the only two choices: Pay more and improve the system, or pay no more and accept the woefully inadequate service we have now — and much worse to come.

Commuter outrage has convinced legislators we have a problem here. They’re planning hearings, which always fill my heart with hopefulness.

But it doesn’t look like anyone has the will to fix the T’s woes. Though ours is one of the cheapest rides in the country, MBTA general manager Rich Davey has ruled out fare increases. Which leaves only added revenue from the state as an alternative. And Beacon Hill has been allergic to the R-word for years — witness the wimpery on raising the gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1991.

We live in a time when people think taxes are theft, the connection between the money we contribute to the Commonwealth and the services it buys severed. Everybody worries about things falling apart; hardly anybody thinks they should help pay for fixes.

More four-hour trips to Worcester are the logical outcome of that approach. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.