The financial state of the MBTA is bleak; horrifically bleak.  It is currently $8 billion in debt. The $1.6 billion agency has less than $27.4 million in reserve, of which only $8.8 million is available for operating costs. There is currently a $161 million budget deficit for Y2013. State law mandates the MBTA balance its books each fiscal year, which begins on July 1. If the T were a medical patient, it would be on life support.

Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation & CEO, Richard A. Davey, has given the taxpayers two options, pay rate hikes averaging between 34% and 43% or lose service routes. The MBTA held Open Hearings all over Greater Boston to debate the choices. Hundreds of those impacted lined up to speak at these hearings in what amounts to a heartbreaking dog and pony show. Many are seniors, students, disabled and in some cases disenfranchised people, all of whom have waited courageously tell of their potential plight if the T chooses one of the proposals presently on the table. It was hard for me, with my Acura safely parked in the lot, not to feel shame. Fifty years ago, my dad would have been one of these people. Each day, he walked miles in all kinds of weather to public transportation so my siblings and I could have a better life in the suburbs. When we first moved to the suburbs, we couldn’t afford a car and when we could it was rarely dependable enough for a daily commute to the city. Public transport is a lifeline to those with no other options.

Potential Impact

  • Scenario 1 – RIDE fares increase from $2.00 to $4.50
  • Scenario 2 Fare Increases(Charlie Card)
    • Adult bus – from $1.25 to $1.50
    • Senior bus – from $0.40 to $0.75
    • Adult subway (including Green Line) – from $1.70 to $2.25
    • Senior subway (including Green Line) – from $0.60 to $1.10
  • Scenario 2 Bus – Routes 51 and 60 eliminated
  • Scenario 2 RIDE fares – Most of Brookline would see RIDE fares increase from $2.00 to $3.00 while some of the town (roughly South Brookline) would see RIDE fares increase from $2.00 to either $5.00 or $12.00, depending upon proximity to a remaining bus route.

Yes, white collar workers, even former Governors and Presidential Candidates ride the T. We are all told to ride it for any number of valid reasons. It’s good for the environment and there are parking shortages all over the area. It’s also true that the T helps the area’s economy. It is not for these reasons, however, that this situation has become potentially tragic. We all know we need the T, that’s why we built it.

The T has become a ride to a better life for those who live in the most economically depressed areas of eastern Massachusetts. Who is standing up for these people? Who is saying “Not on my watch”? Who’s drawing a line in the sand? If anyone at the State House or the Department of Transportation is, we can’t find them.

How did we end up in this situation? In 2000, the state came up with a plan called Forward Funding. I could probably leave the explanation at that. How could anything called Forward Funding possibly have a happy ending? A good analogy for Forward Funding is buying a scratch ticket in hopes of paying your mortgage.

In 2000, the state transferred $3.3 billion of Big Dig debt to the MBTA’s books. It then earmarked 20% of state sales tax revenue to fund the T’s new found debt. In the 1990’s, an economic boom brought annual increases in state sales tax collections. It was believed at the time that the boom would go on forever. Unfortunately, that never happens.

In the year 2000…
before 9/11…
before investment bankers gamed the system to line their pockets while throwing the world into a cataclysmic depression…
Massachusetts burdened one of its most necessary agencies with twice the agency’s market value. The agency’s debt obligations are now more than five times it’s value.

What You Can Do

Each year, the T has had to pull a rabbit out of it’s hat to make ends meet, but the gig is up. After years of restructuring debt, selling off assets, and under-budgeting infrastructure, the T is out of viable options.

It is important to note that the MBTA’s present state is not the agency’s fault or the result of insufficient fare rates. The agency works. The state threw it into debt. The forecasts that Forward Funding was based upon have proven to be inaccurate. The MBTA can no longer afford to pay the Big Dig debt. The people who ride the T cannot afford to pay off Big Dig Debt either.

It will be a mountainous challenge to fix this mess. The hard fact is that Massachusetts is broke. It suffers from staggering per capita debt. Politicians alone are not responsible for our problems. As citizens, we must accept some of the responsibility. The truth is, politicians get elected by telling us what we want to hear.  You could never have gotten elected President before 2001 by running on a platform of national security,or elected Mayor of New Orleans by running on a platform of levee safety. Few of us have the discipline to save for a raining day or the foresight to elect people who look to the future.

The MBTA is about to drown. Even if one of the proposed “solutions” – eliminating routes or drastically raising rates – is adopted, the MBTA will still be underwater, holding its breath. It’s too late to throw the T a life preserver. We need to rescue it and build a better boat to handle the rough seas ahead.

To his credit, the Governor said the right things last Thursday. He knows a long-term answer is necessary, but he, and we, need to hold our collective feet to the fire. No more waiting until next year. Every year we wait, it gets harder. There can also be no more bright ideas, like transferring snow removal funds to T coffers. Any New Englander on the street will tell you, “That’s not wicked smaht”.

Learn More

Our founding fathers wrote the Constitution envisioning how it would effect future generations. They weren’t self-preservationists looking to do what it took to get through the next election cycle. They fought for our independence before they even wrote the document. They cared about the people, but more importantly they cared about the people’s descendants. Let’s take a page from that book.

Write your elected officials to tell them that failing to find a long-term solution for the T is this is not going to happen on their watch, because it’s not going to happen on ours.

One final note, I saw a blind woman speak at the Newton Town Hall hearing. I think she was the mother of 3 who lives on a fixed income. Governor Patrick, we urge you to remove the proposal that would raise her $2 fare to use the Ride to a proposed $12 per trip from our playbook. Her staying connected to the world benefits us all.

R. Harvey Bravman, Publisher