The MBTA: Some of Us Ride It, All of Us Need It & All of Us Should Pay For It

Next is debt service – the interest and principal on bonds inherited and issued by the MBTA. By now everyone knows that the T carries more debt than any other transit agency in the country. But what’s really scary is that the majority of the $450 million the T spends every year for debt service is for interest. In the current budget year, the MBTA will pay only $100 million in principal on $5.6 billion in outstanding bonds. That’s like trying to pay off your credit cards by making the minimum monthly payment. And the debt will continue to grow: in the next five years, the MBTA plans to issue an additional $700 million in bonds to pay for long-overdue, critical maintenance projects.

Which brings us to deferred maintenance. Greater Boston’s transit system is old and in need of, well, everything – new trains (especially for commuter rail and the Red and Orange Lines), refurbished stations, improved signals and plain old routine maintenance. The T should be spending at least $750 million annually fixing the system and buying new equipment – but it can only afford $580 million per year. And that’s if the federal government continues to provide more than $400 million annually – a risky assumption since the House of Representatives voted last week to eliminate all dedicated federal funding for transit.

But just fixing what we already have won’t give Greater Boston the public transportation system it needs and deserves. The MBTA needs to be able to invest strategically to better connect workers to jobs and leverage private sector investment in new economic development. The extension of the Green Line to Somerville is long overdue. And other worthy projects wait in a crowded queue that will never move unless the resources are found to allow for continued, strategic investment in improving and expanding transit to ensure that a 19th century transit system can grow to meet the region’s 21st century needs.

The bottom line:  just plugging the hole in this year’s operating budget accomplishes very little unless we proceed to craft a comprehensive funding solution that addresses all of the MBTA’s needs.

And what is that comprehensive solution? It’s actually pretty simple: everyone who benefits from the MBTA needs to help pay for its operating, debt service, maintenance and investment needs. The beneficiaries who should be contributing to the comprehensive financial plan that will fix the T’s finances for good include:

  • Riders, who use the system regularly, and who can contribute by covering closer to half of the system’s operating costs through a more innovative and equitable fare structure;
  • Drivers, who benefit from reduced traffic on the roads when others ride the MBTA, and who can contribute through some combination of increased gas taxes, mileage charges and tolls;
  • Employerswhose employees use transit to get to their jobs, and who can contribute through pass subsidy programs, sales and property taxes and perhaps a new payroll charge like that used in Portland, Oregon;
  • Universitieswhose students rely on the MBTA, and who can contribute by agreeing to buy reduced-cost passes for all of their students, faculty and staff as happens in Chicago;
  • Cities and townswhose property values and therefore tax collections increase from the presence of transit, and who can contribute more through a restructured system of local assessments;
  • Massportwhich relies on the T to provide access to Logan Airport and its developments, and who can contribute by supporting airport access services and ferries; and
  • Taxpayerswho benefit from the thriving regional economy in greater Boston that is anchored by the MBTA, and who can contribute by assuming responsibility for paying at least part of the MBTA’s debt service.

Here in Massachusetts we need to adopt the slogan used in St. Louis to successfully convince voters to tax themselves in order to restore transit service cuts and invest in the future of their system:  “Transit – some of us ride it, all of us need it.” And all of us need to help pay for it.

Editor’s Note: Stephanie Pollack is associate director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

This post is part of an ongoing series, called “Rerailing the MBTA,” about transit in Massachusetts in connection with the MBTA fare increase and service cuts proposals. To read more, click here

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