Officials pledge T budget fix amid protests

February 3, 2012
By

Local officials pledged to come up with a budget solution. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation circulated a petition. Bikes Not Bombs announced a night of political lobbying. Occupy JP held up signs saying, “Increase fairness, not fares.”

The tactics varied, but the response from over 150 people was the same: a rejection of the MBTA’s proposed fare increases and service cuts, which were presented at a Feb. 1 meeting at the Hennigan Elementary School on Heath Street.

Crippled by funding problems and debt, and facing a $161 million deficit this year alone, the MBTA is proposing a brutal budget that the agency itself clearly does not like.

“We’re transit people. We don’t like making these recommendations,” said MBTA Acting General Manager Jonathan Davis in a Gazette interview. The bus Davis rides to work is among that that would be cut in the plan.

In Jamaica Plain, the cuts would include killing the Green Line subway/streetcar service on weekends and cutting back the Route 38 “JP Loop” bus that serves many seniors. The Needham Line commuter trains would not run on weekends or late nights, and several other bus routes would be cut back as well.

The fare hikes would be either 35 or 43 percent on standard trips, and up to 500 percent on the RIDE, which serves people with disabilities.

Residents speaking against the plan included commuters who would not be able to get to work and disabled people who might not be able to go anywhere at all.

State legislators are working on a funding fix, but said it is difficult in tight economic times and with little support from suburban and rural colleagues whose constituents may not ride the T. There was much talk of raising the gas tax, but that will be politically difficult and probably would only be a piece of the funding puzzle.

Jay Gonzalez, the chief budget-writer for Gov. Deval Patrick, attended the meeting, though he did not speak.

Residents had many funding ideas of their own, including that the MBTA crack down on rampant fare evaders. But some of the ideas were based on misinformation.

Several speakers claimed that the MBTA’s debt is owed to giant banks that got federal bailout money and should forgive the debt in return. But the debt did not come from bank loans. It is in the form of state bonds that are publicly traded and may be owned by individual people, mutual funds, insurance companies, banks and any other kind of investor.

“In short, there is no large concentration of bonds at one institution,” the MBTA said in a written statement to the Gazette.

Many officials and residents urged the MBTA to drop its proposal and instead join in lobbying the state to fix the budget problems. Officials also urged people to get friends who live in suburban and rural areas to pressure their legislators.

“I don’t think that’s the MBTA’s role,” Davis told the Gazette. But he clearly was eager to hear the various protests and complaints at the meeting, and agreed that a statewide solution is necessary.

“I think everyone in the Commonwealth should be concerned” about the MBTA’s cuts, he said at the meeting in response to one commenter. He noted the cuts would reduce transportation options, create “more congestion on the roads” and have some “detrimental impact on air quality.”

The following are highlights from some officials and activists at the meeting:

• Mayor Thomas Menino believes that “service cuts at this time make no sense,” Boston Transportation Commissioner Thomas Tinlin said on the mayor’s behalf. “Riders should not be forced to shoulder the burden of this debt,” he said. Menino issued a letter on Jan. 27 that rejects the plan as a “one-year Band-Aid” that has unacceptable impacts, and calls for more collaboration on a funding solution.

• State Rep. Russell Holmes said, “We in the legislature are not going to kick the can. We are going to make a decision” on fixing the MBTA budget. But, he cautioned, it won’t be a simple fix. Raising the gas tax is divisive and other options are on the table, such as requiring out-of-state companies to collect Massachusetts sales taxes. The state sales tax includes a portion dedicated to funding the T, but that revenue is sinking in a bad economy and the rise of Internet shopping.

• State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz reviewed the revenue options and acknowledged that the gas tax can have an impact on consumers just like fare increase do. But, she said, “I’d rather see that [gas tax increase] than service cuts and fare increases on the T.” She also cited the Internet sale tax loophole, T fare evasion and, long-term, an income tax increase. She also asked the MBTA to clearly state what funding it needs so legislators can seek it.

• State Rep. Liz Malia said that “no one in my constituency should be asked to cut off their right hand or left hand,” describing the MBTA’s plan, which offers two options that are both severe but vary in how much they increase fares or cut services. But in the House, she said, “It’s a math problem right now. We don’t have the votes [for a budget fix].” She called on the MBTA to partner with officials for a solution.

• State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez said he understands why some parts of the state would oppose a gas tax increase. But, he added, “I’m the state representative for Jamaica Plain. I’m from Mission Hill. I will step up for a gas tax.”

• At-Large City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a JP resident, said that it doesn’t make sense to say, “Let’s offer a worse product for more money.” He called the fare increases “unacceptable” as “essentially a tax increase on the poor” and said the MBTA needs to be lobbying the state for a solution. “The problem with these listening sessions is, you don’t have to listen” because everyone obviously opposes the plan, he said.

• At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressely, who does not drive and relies on the T, said she rejects the plan because of its impact on the city’s “ultimate infrastructure”—its people.

• JP City Councilor Matt O’Malley said that by cutting service, and thus ridership, “We seem to be setting ourselves up for failure.” He called for a restructuring of the debt and the gas tax solution.

• Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), called the plan “unconscionable” for its impact on people his organization serves. They include seniors who ride the JP Loop and recently immigrated workers who often work night or weekend shifts. JPNDC was circulating a petition against the plan and already had 200 signatures by the next morning, according to organizer Kyle Robidoux.

• Bikes Not Bombs, a JP-based nonprofit, announced a Feb. 21 event where T riders will share stories and then engage in a phone-calling and letter-writing campaign against the plan. Organizer Jeremy Hanson called transportation a “human right.” For more information, see bikesnotbombs.org.

• Betsy Cowan, executive director of Egleston Square Main Street, said that the small businesses in her area rely on customers who use public transit.

The MBTA’s full plan can be viewed at mbta.com. It is accepting comments at fareproposal@mbta.com or Fare Proposal, 10 Park Plaza, Suite 3910, Boston, MA 02116.