Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) unveiled a budget plan that is alarming at best. According to The Boston Globe, the MBTA wants to suspend all weekend commuter rail service for a year and cut tens of thousands of door-to-door rides for passengers with disabilities.
The T is constantly under fire, whether it’s dealing poorly with wintry conditions, experiencing changeup at its highest management levels or alarming Orange Line passengers with smoking train cars. It’s safe to say that Bay Staters don’t have warm feelings toward their public transit service.
However, the proposed cuts this time are indicative of a larger problem with the T. Although it is meant to be a public service, it has largely been developed to operate better in more affluent areas rather than working-class residential neighborhoods.
When a winter storm hits, service is most impacted at the ends of the train lines—where low-income Bostonians reside. The centers of the lines, around Back Bay and Beacon Hill, typically remain functional. Many MBTA services help suburban communities like Newton, where the median household income was $126,649 in 2015, according to City-Data.com.
Last spring, when the MBTA originally proposed fare hikes that were implemented in July, Mark Pothier opined in The Boston Globe that the system was not designed with affordability in mind.
“There are reduced fares for seniors, students and the disabled, but the majority of customers pay the same admission fee,” Pothier wrote. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re going to corporate headquarters or going to clean the home of someone who works at corporate headquarters.”
So when the T proposes that the commuter rail shut down entirely for nearly 30 percent of the week, there are people who can no longer afford to go into or out of the city. If those people are workers, a number of things beyond transportation will become unaffordable as well.
According to May 2016 statistics from Keolis Commuter Services, the company that runs the commuter rail, trains provided about 8,300 trips heading toward Boston on Saturdays and 4,500 on Sundays. While the company did not provide numbers on outbound trips in its report, during fiscal 2013, about 25,700 trips were recorded on Saturdays and about 21,000 on Sundays.
Commonwealth Magazine points out that there is some confusion between the proposed numbers and the MBTA’s communication with the public. For example, an MBTA consultant said bus maintenance costs could be cut via the employment of private operators, while retaining existing public workers at their current pay. However, a private sector model was released a few days later that suggested savings would primarily come from job cuts. Additionally, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration tends to focus on the staggering numbers of total costs, rather than on the marginal cost of, say, adding a bus.
We need clear-cut information. We need a shared understanding of what the MBTA is actually proposing. We do not need governmental agencies trying to justify sweeping cuts to essential services. The bottom line is that people—real individuals—use the services on the chopping block. Boston-area workers take the commuter rail on weekends, as do students visiting their families. Many people with disabilities, especially those who are unable to afford special vehicles or other assistance, rely on The Ride to get them from place to place.
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Monday that we must “ask questions, hard questions, about what we want to run.” We invite Pollack, in return, to ask questions about the very system we have in place. It is irresponsible to take away service from the individuals who need it most. Public transportation must serve the public.
Photo courtesy Matthew in Boston, Creative Commons