The Governor’s Special Panel to Review the MBTA is exactly right about a fundamental point: it rejects the ‘reform vs revenue’ debate because “the MBTA needs both.” The report recognizes that Massachusetts requires a strong public transportation system, including increased capacity and expansion. We need public transit for future economic prosperity, to maximize access to jobs and services, improve quality of life in our communities, and improve our environment. While we don’t claim insight into whether the panel is right about how to operate a well-managed transit system, it also deserves credit for focusing attention on ways to cost cuts, increase revenue within the system, and improve accountability. We welcome efforts to be more creative and efficient in how we think about public transportation.
Nevertheless, we have reservations about the implications of three important recommendations in the report. First, from a smart growth perspective, it is short-sighted to make maximizing system revenue our overriding goal. We do not ask our roadways to maximize revenue! Instead, we should be guided by the goal of ensuring that the people of Massachusetts can get where they need to go, safely and efficiently. For example, the panel recommends using “real estate assets strategically,” and we agree. But that does not mean maximizing proceeds from selling T parcels and maximizing parking revenue. Rather, it means using those assets to bring about the best outcome for Massachusetts. Transit-oriented development has a multiplier effect in our economy and can be transformative in weaker markets. Many TOD strategists think that surplus state parcels—including those owned by the MBTA—should be sold at below-market prices in exchange for affordable and middle income housing. In this way we can leverage our transportation system to address our housing crisis. We need to think outside the transportation silo.
Second, we are concerned about the panel’s recommendation that the current fare cap—restricting increases to 5% every two years—be lifted. Fares were raised an average of 23% in 2012, and the fare cap language was adopted in the last transportation reform bill to guard against future dramatic increases. Fares were raised again 5% in 2014. Eliminating the cap would undermine another of the panel’s key recommendations that the MBTA focus more on increasing its ridership. We favor retaining the fare cap, which keeps the T affordable for our low-income residents, which are its core ridership. Finally, with housing prices out of control for many families, riding the T is one of the only ways to make ends meet and reduce costs in Greater Boston. As former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi says, “To ask people to pay more for lousy service before you improve it is just completely wrong.”
Third, while we appreciate the nuanced way in which the panel handled the issue of system expansion, a “temporary moratorium” sends the wrong message and is potentially counter-productive to the state’s economic and smart growth development goals. The panel made the key distinction between increasing system capacity and expansion, wisely recommended that long-term planning proceed, and carved out certain essential expansions like the Green Line extension. However, if businesses and developers lack confidence that Massachusetts will invest in public transportation, there is risk that they will focus on states that are creating 21st century infrastructure. It is clear that we need to not only fix the transportation system of the 1980s, but create a transportation system for 2030.
We thank the Governor for making public transit a top priority and look forward to a robust debate within the Administration, and within the legislature, on the panel’s recommendations.
Download the MBTA panel report here: http://www.mass.gov/governor/docs/news/mbta-panel-report-04-08-2015.pdf
Learn about Transportation for Massachusetts here: http://www.t4ma.org/