Time is not right for large T fare hike

February 24, 2016

[Cross-posted from Commonwealth Magazine]

By Vivian Ortiz and Charlie Ticotsky

The MBTA asked the public what it thinks of the agency’s proposal to raise overall transit fares by as much as 10 percent and the cost of some passes by as much as 23 percent. And the public has spoken:

  • More than 2,000 people took the time to comment on the proposed fare hike online. Only 4 percent said they supported the hike, with nearly three-quarters opposing.
  • A wide range of entities, some of whom agree on little else, have united in opposition, from the NAACP to the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, and including the Boston Public Schools.
  • Nearly 500 people turned out to the MBTA’s public hearings, with 170 people, including local and state public officials, speaking against the fare hike.

There are many others whose voices were not heard, either because they weren’t able to make it to a hearing, they didn’t know about them (in our experience, no information was placed inside transit vehicles about the hearings, and the floor-level signs at transit stations did not include a hearing schedule, just a web address and number to call), or they did not feel confident that they would be able to communicate their concerns appropriately (at the Roxbury meeting, for example, a Spanish-speaking rider provided his own interpreter).

Those who did testify told powerful stories of how the fare hike will affect their communities. Representatives of the Boston Public Schools described how the 23 percent increase in student passes will drain more than $1 million from the school budget – enough to pay for 14 badly needed teachers. Residents of Roxbury and Chelsea told how the fare hike will make it even more difficult for them to make ends meet at a time when the cost of living is going through the roof. Young people told how rising fares and pass costs would impede their ability to get to school or to keep a summer job.

How has the MBTA reacted to the outpouring of public reaction? By claiming that the unified public opposition to the fare hike is “modest,” in the words of the T’s Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve. What does it say to those who did speak out to have their participation minimized in such a way? And if thousands of comments aren’t enough to convey the clear and overwhelming opposition of MBTA riders and Greater Boston residents to the hikes, what exactly would be?

MBTA riders and Greater Boston residents have been told many things about the proposed fare hike. They’ve been told that, even with higher fares, they will be getting a “great deal” compared with residents of other cities (at least if they buy a monthly pass, which most low-income residents don’t), at the same time they endure crowded, unreliable buses and trains.

They have been told that the fare hike will somehow deliver better and more reliable service, even though previous fare hikes – which have resulted in a doubling of fares since 2000 – have failed to slow the T’s steady, slow slide into disrepair.

They have been told that the added revenue from fare hikes will go toward capital improvements, even as state officials continue to claim that the T is unable to realistically spend any more capital funds than have already been made available.

Riders and residents have been told that raising fares is a “last resort,” even though simply continuing previous levels of state support, which Gov. Charlie Baker already has included in his budget proposal – coupled with the money the T has already saved through cost-cutting measures – would provide enough revenue to close the budget gap for next year with only the 5 percent biannual fare increase envisioned by lawmakers in the 2013 transportation reform bill.  And, just this week, the T announced it will come in $75 million under this year’s budget, which, again, negates the need for fare hikes.

Over the last month, the public has told the MBTA – loud and clear – that the time is not right for a large fare hike. Approving a fare hike in excess of 5 percent, especially given the recent high-profile failures of the transit system, would be a tone deaf response to riders’ very real concerns about the T. It would also show that, for all the talk in this new era of making the new MBTA responsive to consumers, the agency still has the capacity to hear only what it wants to hear.
Vivian Ortiz is a resident of Mattapan and Charlie Ticotsky is the policy director at Transportation for Massachusetts.

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