Jan 6, 2016
By James Aloisi
In the same week that the House Speaker announced that he would not support any tax or fee increases this year, the same week when a Commuter Rail train derailed because of apparent infrastructure issues, and when delays were rampant on the Red Line—in that same week—we were told to prepare for yet another hike in MBTA fares. Forget about the optics of all this, which are terrible. Let’s talk instead about what it says about our values as a city and as a Commonwealth.
A fare increase is not justified by improved service. The T’s winter resilience program was smart and well funded, but unreliable performance is not solely the consequence of winter snow, cold and ice blitzkriegs. As every T rider knows full well, the T’s resilience problem spans all seasons because we are burdened by the high cost of decades of disinvestment. Now we are faced with the harsh reality, affirmed by the T’s Fiscal Control Board, that it will take a sustained effort costing over $7 billion to bring the T into a true state of good repair. Until and unless we can demonstrate some tangible and sustainable improvements to service, asking people to pay more for a service that too often is unreliable is simply not warranted.
A fare increase is also an ineffective revenue-generating tool. The proposed high- and low-range fare increases do not raise anywhere near enough to make a dent in the $7 billion state-of-good repair gap. The anticipated additional $20 to $40 million in fare revenue may help reduce a projected operating deficit, but I suspect most riders would rather see the T take action to reduce costs first. The deliberate strategy of announcing a plethora of mini-scandals of overtime abuse and fare evasion raises the question: Why not fix that stuff first and then ask for a fare hike?
Nor is a fare increase warranted by a low fare box recovery ratio (the percentage of fares paying for operating costs). Recent analysis by the Frontier Group has shown that when you fairly compare the T’s fare box recovery to other systems on a mode-for-mode basis (i.e. comparing bus-to-bus, light rail to light rail), the T is just about in the middle range nationally, and actually leads in fare box recovery for light rail service. Some may say that T fares should nevertheless cover a higher percentage of operating costs, but that view leads directly to a discussion of fairness and equity.
It is time to ask why taxes are always off the table, but fare increases are not. Since 2000, T fares have doubled while the gas tax was increased by a paltry 3 cents in 2013 (the first gas tax increase in over 20 years). This is the state that refused to even adjust its gas tax for inflation, but when it comes to asking T riders to pay more money for the same unimproved service, few voices cry foul. Is this because of the perception that only (or mostly) the powerless take the T? If not, what accounts for the disparate treatment of T riders?
James Aloisi is a former Secretary of Transportation and a principal in the Pemberton Square Group.