Saturday, January 21, 2012

MBTA service cuts - the dance begins

So the MBTA, crippled by the additional debt assigned to it from the Big Dig, is now proposing significant service cuts as a partial solution to their chronic deficits. Public transit serves a public good, yet it is almost never profitable on its own. Should a public service be run like a business? Thousands of people depend on the MBTA for access to jobs and shopping, many more use it for tourism. What would be the impact to Boston if day trippers couldn't take the train into the city?

This is an ancient kabuki in government services. Drastic cuts are proposed, something happens to prevent it. The MBTA has made some strides over the last few years in curbing expenses. They still have capital costs that are high, given all the obligations the state has placed on them. Here in Salem they're obligated to build a garage facility (and there's another one going up in Beverly), but due to their financial issues the Salem garage is being chopped from 800-900 spaces to around 500 - barely more than the parking lot it replaces. Hingham got a $50 million tunnel because residents were so opposed to a grade crossing - that money would have built the entire garage here.

There's also a legal agreement to expand the Green Line into Somerville, and plenty of other obligations. The money's not there to fund it. So what's the solution?

My take is this (and I proposed something similar back in my pre-politician days): Currently we have a portion of sales tax revenue dedicated to the MBTA. It's obviously not enough. We also have a decaying road system, and only small sections of roadway that are tolled (the Tobin Bridge and Mass. Pike/harbor tunnels are the only tolled roads in Massachusetts - Route 93 isn't tolled at all). We have increasing road usage, so to me the obvious choice is to freeze tolls where they are (I think tolls are discriminatory - why should some roads be tolled and others not at all?), and increase gas taxes by an appropriate amount to compensate. Compared to some of the other states in the area (CT, NY, ME), we have one of the lower gas taxes around. They've been at current levels for a long time. I'd support raising gas taxes in Massachusetts by at least 15-20 cents per gallon, with the revenue split between the highway system and the MBTA. Gas taxes are a far more fair revenue raiser than tolls - the more you use the roads the more gas you consume.

This also gives you a further incentive to drive more economical cars as well - the less gas you use the lower your costs are. And a 20 cent raise would generate (based on numbers I looked up from last year) approximately $50 million per month - or $600 million dollars per year. That goes a long way towards solving the MBTA's woes and helping to repair our crumbling highway infrastructure. If we can also begin the process of eliminating tolls, so much the better.