We in Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP) can appreciate that the MBTA is going through difficult financial stresses due to the loss of ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, that like other transit systems across the US, the agency is trying to find ways to stem the continuing loss in revenue through the proposed Forging Ahead plan. However, we are alarmed about the harm those cuts will do regionally both during the pandemic and long term.
The current challenges transit-dependent front-line workers face are enormous and must be met. In the near term, front line workers throughout the metro area who rely on the MBTA to get to work, already commute in a stressful, potentially hazardous environment, often working late hours and taking multiple modes of transit. The proposed service cuts will disproportionately affect those workers, who don’t have jobs that can be done from home. The fact that the buses and subway cars aren’t crowded currently is a good thing to minimize the spread of the virus.
Looking post pandemic, most of the Forging Ahead cuts are planned to take effect next spring, just when vaccine distribution will be in full swing and plans for the “new normal” will be underway. This timing compounds the blow of these cuts to commuters. We don’t want to see our regional traffic nightmare return as part of the new normal. Further, we don’t want to see an economy poised to return crippled by the inability of commuters to rely on public transit.
Many of us attended the MassDOT Forging Ahead “Inner Core” virtual public meeting on Tuesday 17 November. We heard participants wonder in their testimony “Will I have to move?” “Will I need to buy a car?” “Will I have to quit my job?” These are all terrible things for transit dependent inner core residents to face on top of this stressful time in public health and our economy.
Regionally, loss of MBTA service will take a long time to get back, if at all, at a time when we need more public transit. Before the pandemic hit in March, the Boston metro area bore the dubious distinction of having the nation’s worst automobile traffic. How do these T cutbacks support long-term sustainability and transit mobility goals for improving our environment with increasing access to the T, and reducing the role of automobiles?
Funding the MBTA has been a long-standing problem, now worsened and highlighted by the pandemic. This is an opportunity to raise revenue in bold ways, such as instituting tolling on I-93 and I-95. Modestly increasing the gas tax should also be implemented to preserve and enhance regional transit options. Most states have generally had much higher gas and diesel fuel taxes for a decade or more. It has been a challenge to modestly raise gas taxes in the Commonwealth because of public attitudes to revenue generation following the Big Dig cost overruns. The cost of fuel is at a historic low now, making this a time when an increase of 10 or 20 cents per gallon could be instituted for emergency funding for transportation.
Large employers throughout the region should play a role in working with the MBTA to develop a sound fiscal and transit service plan to meet the needs of their workers and all transit dependent residents. Perhaps large employers can also contribute to transit funding through corporate taxes. And, large non-profit employers such as universities, and our large medical centers, could be enlisted to support the transit needs of their employees and service users. Although the MBTA cannot be expected to pay for itself, its users should not be punished for relying on it.
We are very alarmed by the proposal to have the MBTA use capital investment funds to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in operating expenses. It’s another short term move that pushes the expense of maintaining the system down the road to face increased costs, thus further compounding the problem of maintaining the system.
The pandemic won’t be here forever. But the damage inflicted on the region by these proposed cuts will have an impact for a long time.