Left In Lowell

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January 15, 2013

Addressing the Core Transit Issue

by at 8:45 am.

I was watching local news this morning and they had a segment on Governor Patrick’s and MassDOT’s new transportation plan (pdf). I think I owe the Governor a small apology as the things listed prominently as revenue sources for addressing the structural deficits, crumbing infrastructure, and needed transportation investments included MBTA fee hikes. I was all set to write a huffy blog post about that, and I will get to that in a minute, but it appears that the mention of MBTA fee increases is modest, if anything, in the actual report, so now I’m a little miffed at Channel 7 instead.

Since that early report, I have heard the Governor on WBUR on my way into work (audio not up yet) and read some online articles like on Boston.com and skimmed the revenue section of the report itself (as linked above). I have to say, the plan/report takes the situation pretty head on and has a very wide net in its revenue suggestions. And the report is not Boston-centric; although of course most of the public transit is in the Boston area, there is a call for a Boston-Springfield line (long overdue) and other projects.

The report is also pretty harsh on the nonaction the state has taken thus far to address the problems that forcing the MBTA into terrible structural deficits - otherwise known as forward funding and putting Big Dig debt on its books at the same time:

At the time, the Central Artery project – the ‘Big Dig’ – was incomplete and faced a significant shortfall in funding. Federal dollars were at risk as state bond authorizations for projects under construction were running out. At the same time, a risky financial transaction entered into by a prior administration, termed a ‘swaption,’ was coming due with a required payment of $263 million that, without a solution, would have resulted in a toll increase for the Boston Harbor tunnels to a total of $7 and an increase to $2 at the Allston and Weston tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Bonds at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority faced default and the Commonwealth’s credit rating was at risk of being downgraded. The MBTA and the Commonwealth’s 15 Regional Transit Authorities faced budget deficits and the need for fare increases and service cuts, while subway, bus, and commuter rail riders were experiencing increasing delays and chronically unreliable and inadequate service.

Of course, the plan goes on to have a lot of examples of things the current administration has done right about reforming the system - praise that I do think is actually well deserved and earned. Saving our collective asses on the swaption issue alone ought to put Patrick in the good graces of all the taxpayers of the Commonwealth, nevermind the streamlining of agencies and the investments he lead with our portions of federal stimulus money.

The report is well worth a read (which I will do thoroughly at a later date).

This plan addresses every possible avenue of revenues to help curtail the structural deficits of the system, and has bold but modest new proposals to modernize and extend our transit infrastructure. So far props from me. I do have one concern, however, and that is that we stop ruining the one thing we really had going for us, before crushing debt and forward funding destroyed it - and that was a cheap (to the end user) public transit system.

Since the Mr. has now been commuting from Lowell to Boston for around a decade, I feel we have a lot of personal experience with the Commuter Rail and the MBTA system. And the thing I’ve noticed the most is the pretty incredible increases in the cost of riding the rail and the T.

In this warming, crowded world, we ought to be encouraging people to take public transit. Let me give you a real world example. I’m looking for a real, permanent full time job. In my industry (web/graphics/interactive design) there’s a high probability that’ll wind up being in Boston. That would mean both myself and the Mr. would be commuting to Boston together.

A monthly pass for Zone 6 of the Commuter Rail is now $275. That means a total of $550/month if we were both to take the train. That’s a serious chunk of change. Suddenly, for two people commuting, a car is looking like a much better deal. That means putting our car on the road, polluting CO2 into the air and clogging up the already-clogged highways. We’d likely commute to one of the endpoints of the T and take that in, but that’s still a car on the road that doesn’t need to be (we live right around the corner from the train station for heaven’s sake!). Granted, then we’d be subject to the whims of traffic, or have to leave ungodly-early to avoid such, and there are benefits to having a nice hands-free leisurely ride into Boston (like when a book addict owns a Kindle) but still. The financial incentive for taking the train is getting worse all the time.

The MBTA/Commuter Rail has been hiked up enough already. The gas tax? Not since 1991. If the Commonwealth were smart, it’d freeze MBTA hikes for a while. It has gone up at least $40-50 a month in a very short timeframe. Encourage green and efficient travel - don’t raise the fares.

5 Responses to “Addressing the Core Transit Issue”

  1. C R Krieger Says:

    Didn’t I just read were snow is disrupting travel in Japan?

    But, aside from that, I think of the flip side of Lynne’s case.  Every commuter on I-93 should be thankful for everyone who finds the train convenient and takes it.  One less car to dodge.  Transportation is a system in some sort of balance.  Knock out a peg and everything else gets rebalanced and more rickety.  Conversely, a new four lane road means fewer commuters trying to E&E through residential areas.  Better, cheaper, faster trains opens up highway space.  And, if that space is filled in by new auto commuters that means the economy is growing, and that is a good thing.

    Reards  —  Cliff

  2. Ryan Says:

    My recent thought is we should link T hikes to the gas tax. The state wants to increase the cost of the T? Fine, increase the gas tax by the same %.

  3. Right In Lowell Says:

    Lizzie was prophetic; the middle class is getting hammered now.

  4. Lynne Says:

    *rolls eyes* That all you really have?

    I find it interesting that no one is talking about the part of the proposal where he LOWERS the sales tax. Funny how that gets lost. In other words, a more regressive tax gets reduced, and a more fair one gets raised. Seems like a good idea to me.

  5. C R Krieger Says:

    I am not sure regressive is the opposite of fair.  I haven’t been looking around, so I don’t know what folks are saying, but for sure a sales tax hurts the less well off.  A VAT would be even worse, in that it would be hidden.

    The above said, there is value in everyone paying some taxes and knowing it.  The expression “skin in the game” comes to mind.  Voters who pay taxes are in a qualitively different place.

    That said, the Mass Income Tax is not a progressive tax and I think it should be.  Not radically so, but still progressive.  We ALL enjoy benefits from the Commonwealth’s Government and from Counties, Cities and Towns.  If I am more well off I may be better able to benefit from those benefits, but we all benefit.  Progressive, but not confiscatory.

    Everyone should pay some and the Middle and Upper Classes should pay progressively more, but none should feel they are being singled out, especially if they can sell out and move to Texas or Florida.

    Regards  —  Cliff

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