Fare hikes, service cuts loom for Mass. transit
BOSTON -- Public transit in Massachusetts is facing a bumpy ride this coming year.
Difficult questions loom in 2012 for an aging, cash-strapped system that is moving record numbers of passengers on subways, buses and commuter trains, while also dealing with crippling debt and a maintenance backlog that could hinder its ability to maintain current operations and even slow the region's economic recovery.
"The magnitude of the MBTA's financial problem really goes beyond any kind of quick fix," said Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, a Boston-based organization that monitors transportation issues.
But at least part of any fix will likely pinch the wallets of just about anyone who pays a fare or swipes a CharlieCard transit pass to get to work, school or play.
Early next year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is expected to unveil a list of potential fare increases and service cuts aimed at erasing a deficit that is projected at $161 million in the next fiscal year and could reach $350 million by 2016.
"We are going to put out a number of different ideas and proposals in January and then have a robust public dialogue," state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said in an interview.
The scope of possible fare increases have not been disclosed, but groups that advocate for riders are anticipating up to a 30 percent increase. Davey indicated that some less popular bus routes and late-night commuter rail runs could be targeted for service cuts.
Current fares for passengers with CharlieCards are $1.70 for subways and $1.25 for buses. Commuter rail fares range from $1.70 to $8.25 depending on the route. The last MBTA fare increase was Jan. 1, 2007, making Boston, along with Baltimore, the only major U.S. systems that haven't boosted fares over the last five years.
Meanwhile, business on the T is booming. Acting General Manager Jonathan Davis announced recently that ridership in September and October was the highest for a consecutive two-month period -- averaging close to 1.35 million passenger trips per weekday. But Davey, who was GM before being named transportation secretary by Gov. Deval Patrick last summer, said current fares do not cover the full cost to the T of any of those trips.
At the heart of the T's financial problem lies soaring debt.
Roughly 30 percent of the agency's budget goes to repay $5.5 billion in borrowing racked up over many years -- rising to more than $8 billion with interest -- making it the nation's most indebted transit system, Davey said. The T has been "kicking the can down the road" for years, refinancing debt and employing other short-term fixes, he said, but can no longer prudently do that, particularly as federal and state financial support for public transportation shrinks.
The agency plans to hold up to 20 public hearings before deciding on fare increases and/or service reductions. Officials will likely get an earful.
"The MBTA has other choices than simply to increase fares or cut service," said Lee Matsueda, program director for the T Riders Union, a coalition of groups that advocate for riders.
It would be unfair of the T to simply transfer its debt burden to passengers, Matsueda said, particularly low-income residents, the elderly and students for whom fare increases or service cuts would be "devastating."
Public transportation is a "lifeline for people to get around, to go to their jobs, their schools, medical appointments," he said.
Matsueda called on the MBTA and state lawmakers to collaborate on a long-term strategy for fixing the system's financial woes before looking at fare increases or service cuts. His suggestions include increasing the 21 cents per gallon gasoline tax paid by motorists and requiring tax-exempt institutions that benefit from public transit, such as colleges and hospitals, to contribute more to its cost.
Dimino, whose organization represents business interests, worries that the region's economy could suffer if higher fares drive down ridership.
"There is a certain point that people will actually stop using the T if the prices are too high, and we have seen that in the past," he said.
Dimino also cautions against slashing service during "non-peak" travel periods, such as nights and weekends, pointing to the non-traditional work schedules of employees at hospitals, hotels and other businesses. He concedes, however, that when it comes to the T's finances, officials are "running out of rabbits to pull out of their hat."
Even as it tries to retire past debt, the system faces an estimated $5 billion "state of good repair" gap -- the amount of money that it would need to modernize and adequately maintain all of its equipment and infrastructure.
The commuter rail system, which transports more than 70,000 people each weekday along 394 miles of track to the north, south and west of Boston, is limping along with an aging fleet of locomotives and rail cars, some three-quarters of which have been in service near or just below the 25-30 years of useful life recommended by manufacturers.
Outdated locomotives were cited in a series of breakdowns last winter that stranded and infuriated passengers. While officials say they have a plan for avoiding a repeat of that misery this winter, long-term solutions will necessitate investment in new equipment.
The MBTA's contract with its private operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail, expires June 30, 2013. Davey said the T plans to solicit bids from potential commuter rail contractors with an eye toward inking a new deal by late 2012.
MBCR promised to aggressively seek renewal of the contract it has held since 2003, but said the T, which owns the equipment, must do more to modernize and encourage private investment in the system.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)