A Muddled Call to Arms by the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee as MBTA is Forced to Consider Fare Increases

It may soon cost you more to walk through these gates, but a fare increase shouldn't be the only option on the table.

As the looming fare increase and service cut proposals gain more public awareness in the wake of yesterday's MBTA board meeting, Boston residents, and perhaps the Commonwealth itself, are forced to mull over what options are on the table to deal with the growing gap in the MBTA's operating budget.

Eric Moskowitz from the Globe lays out the situation accurately and succinctly:

If the T does nothing, it faces a projected $161 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, as costs such as utilities, health insurance, and federally mandated paratransit service rise faster than MBTA revenue, the chief sources of which are fares (about $450 million a year) and a percentage of the state sales tax (worth nearly $800 million).

The T faced a similar situation last year but avoided a fare increase by implementing one-time measures such as selling future parking revenue to investors for a lump sum. The T has also tightened pension eligibility, streamlined labor costs (including switching from two operators to one operator on multiple subway lines), auctioned surplus property, and sold ads on everything from station walls to its website.

The T last raised fares Jan. 1, 2007.

Just in time to be a part of this discussion, the MBTA Rider Oversight Committe has released a plea to riders to speak to their representatives and advocate for better MBTA funding, which will hopefully run in tomorrow's Metro:

Riders, now is the time for us to stand up and speak out. The T’s red ink is much worse than you think. Next year, without increased funding, your bus or train could be the one that stops coming. Do we want the transit system we can afford or the transit system that we need? Rally round, and get engaged! Come join us at the public meetings and support the MBTA. Help us by calling your local and state representatives to insist they finally address the T’s funding gap. Fellow riders, it’s our T. It’s time for us to defend it.

In their letter, they speak to the better senses of the public, as does much of the press, trying to inform and arm the public with information to help advocate for a better solution, but many of the more radical options have been left out of the conversation, at least outside of twitter.

The last time New York City had to face these issues a few years ago, local politics included more vocal pushes for alternative funding vehicles to prevent a massive fare increase and service cuts. (They happened anyway because New York politics is a mess and has been one for a while.) Beyond typical ignorant ranting of government largess and inefficiencies, there were calls to start congestion pricing, tolling East River crossings, and even tax local businesses' payrolls (which has not gone over well).

Suffice it to say, all of these seem to be third rail topics that neither the press nor local advocates are willing to propose. While the ROC and others, including Secretary Davey himself, are pointing at the Commonwealth's legislature for relief, the fact remains that none of them are standing behind a unified message of what to ask for from the legislature in terms of bridging the funding gap, especially considering the Commonwealth is already trying to deal with a tight budget for every other state agency.

From my experience on twitter lately, it seems riders are more concerned with the platform experience more than the funding mechanisms behind the MBTA, more quick to bash it for inefficiency and waste than grant the agency a shadow of a doubt and look into reports about the funding situation. Advocates and members of the public in the know need to step up, do a better job to make the facts and options more accessible to riders, and stand behind a more cohesive message.

All I'm seeing is repeated messages of what we don't want and what we don't feel comfortable bringing up. I'll start by throwing my weight behind moderate fare increasescongestion pricingparking reform (market pricing), and better long-term real estate deals on MBTA/state owned property. Perhaps we could get started on making public-private partnerships to assure funding, quality construction, and well-capitalised reconstruction of ageing stations and the Green Line extension, because simply selling naming rights of stations to corporations is really selling out the system.

MBTA's Fare Enforcement Campaign Dead on Arrival

MBTA Fare Evasion Sign The MBTA is at it again, but this time they're not simply introducing more inspectors to roam the system with a campaign to get people to 'pay [their] fare' because ''s only fair'. MassDOT Secretary Davey has announced he is introducing legislation next January to the legislature to make more penalties for fare evasion more severe. All that has been announced is the increase of the first time fare penalty to $100, up from $15.

According to existing legislation (MGL Ch.159 Sec.101), there is a 12 month grace period to pay the pitiful fine before they notify you of your late payment and give you an additional 90 days beyond that before they prevent you from renewing your license. That is, if you even get charged the fine by the inspector or police officer. More often, they will simply ask you to pay your fare. Furthermore, these fines are non-criminal citations that barely have the gravity to make someone think twice about evading fare.

While Secretary Davey has yet to formally introduce the legislation, I am honestly unsure how effective these big pushes will be over time if the MBTA cannot sustain the manpower for frequent and random sweeps by plainclothes Transit PD with concealed ticket readers/validators (like transit gestapo...). You should always feel pressured to pay your fare in case you get fined; the fact that people still don't feel that way today is proof this has already failed.

Further, $100 is hardly enough for a first time fine, especially when other systems, even in the US, charge considerably more. In Portland, Oregon, fare evasion will cost you $175 and in London, it is a misdemeanor for which you will receive a summons[PDF].

The most problematic behaviour induced by the current penalty for fare evasion and lax policy of enforcement is fare evasion on the Green Line. People often sneak onto trains through rear doors, especially on crowded trains. The incidence of random fare validation checks by plainclothes transit police is few and far between or at least infrequent enough to not deter even the least daring Bostonian (or exhausted commuter) from not paying their fare.

While the number of citations is up to 3,248 this past year from 818 in 2007, how effective has this really been in closing the gap? In 1984, the MBTA estimated a loss of $400,00 in fares from evasion, which adjusted for inflation would be twice that amount, not factoring in the last two decades of fare increases and record ridership (of which has been recorded through fare collection) the system has seen. The current loss could well be in the millions of dollars, enough to cover the cost of running a bus route or two, let alone the improvement of several routes as part of the MBTA's cost-effective $10 million Key Bus Routes programme.

The platform-side ticket validators should be leveraged as part of the MBTA's campaign instead of deploying personnel to simply monitor stations for a short blitz. They are at most major surface-station stops  so you can validate your card as you wait or as the train is loading and board at the rear doors. As it is, most people don't see the purpose, few know what they do, and many don't realise they even exist.

The tickets they vend are proof of payment (and a receipt if you don't have a LinkPass) and you are supposed to hold onto them, not put them into the fare box on the train; some drivers will collect it from you if you hold it up and say 'fare validation', but they're not really supposed to. If I board at the rear after validation and a driver asks me to pay up front, I politely shout back that I've validated my fare. Drivers should be reminding you to pay your fare, not commanding you to come up to validate.

The MBTA needs to stop with these high-cost, high profile efforts, properly deploy all-doors boarding, should have pushed for this legislation sooner, and should also be including into the legislation more robust provisions to ensure that tickets get paid on-time (or at all). The MBTA has botched up all-doors boarding and proof-of-payment several times; this time the MBTA has an excellent opportunity with the high-profile announcement of the upcoming legislation to really reduce fare evasion.

This legislation should have been put forward years ago as the CharlieCard was introduced and the infrastructure to support it was installed. It should not have been prompted by a severe budget shortfall, but it is possible the leadership to push such legislation may have not been at the top. Davey's predecessors, both at the DOT as Secretary and MBTA as GM, were administrative characters who sought to run their systems, but were conservative in their approach to change.

While Davey may credit them for the work that they've done, she should take the credit for pushing through the significant changes he has done in his 3-year meteoric rise to his current leadership position. So far, he is taking to heart the popular mantra in transport: organisation before electronics before concrete[PDF]. Is he the Robert Moses-like leadership Massachusetts needs for its transport network?

I challenge him to prove his leadership by presenting a unified vision of transport for Massachusetts in the next decade, because in dire times, we still need a vision to work toward and not simply a state of good repair to settle for.

MBTA General Manager Search Process Now Underway

Despite initially tepid response to the open position for MBTA General Manager (and MassDOT Rail and Transit Administrator), a number of applicants have stepped forward in the month since it was last reported on the matter.

From the Board of Directors, John Jenkins, Elizabeth Levin, and Secretary Richard Davey comprise the three person preliminary search committee who met this morning to begin screening the applicants who have thrown themselves into the pool thus far.

Their intent is to narrow down the pool of applicants to three to four candidates to present to the board with a group interview of selected candidates. So far, there are over 40 applicants with varying degrees of operational and leadership expertise, including candidates with experience from Toronto's TTC to San Francisco's MUNI. 13 of those were put to consideration this morning.

Aside from the desired qualities listed in the posting on the MBTA web site, the committee repeated its desire for candidates with good on-the-ground, operational expertise balanced with well-rounded experience across organisation operations and strong leadership experience.

Through all of this, will we end up with a GM who can lead the MBTA and continue with the internal organisational reform started by Rich Davey almost two years ago? Unlike in New York, where there has been enough political conflict to lead their last and most qualified CEO to resign, Governor Patrick strongly supports both MassDOT and the MBTA and we rarely see him bash either of them. Does it help that the Governor's office is not more than 850 metres away from both the Secretary's and General Manager's office, just across the Commons?

Suffice it to say, the upcoming MBTA GM will be managing the 6th most used public transport system in the US with the greatest debt of them all. S/he will need to work closely with the Governor, Secretary, and legislature in not only securing the funds necessary to operate the economic engine of the Commonwealth, but also show competence in affecting effective reform in the nation's most organisationally flat public transport operator. With little political friction to deal with (compared to that of the MBTA's closest neighbours in the US), the next GM will be able to focus on actually running the system and the search committee will be able to look for a candidate who has more public transport operations experience than New York's new MTA CEO, who is more known for his political and financial management savvy than his (nonexistent) transit experience.

The position remains open to applicants until the end of this year and the search committee will continue to filter candidates as they come in.