An Open Letter to the MBTA

The following is a letter I recently sent to the MBTA in response to their call for public comments regarding the proposed fare increases.

Mr. DePaola and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board:

I had the pleasure of attending the February 2nd public comment meeting in Boston on the proposed MBTA fare hikes. It was a privilege to witness the high turnout and hear the opinions and stories of fellow greater Bostonians in regard to these unwelcome proposed changes at the T. Because I did not have a chance to speak at the meeting, I’m submitting my opposition to the fare increase in writing.

I have lived in the Boston area for nearly 16 years: 6 years in the North End, and nearly 10 in Somerville’s Winter Hill. I have always relied on the T as my primary form of transportation, and it connects me to school, work, and social functions. When I first moved here, the T was a financial necessity; as a limited-income graduate student, I could not afford a car. As my income increased, however, I still preferred to take the T, appreciating its wide network, affordable fares, and environmentally friendly benefits.

I must say, though, that I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my T-riding experience over the past four years in particular. Simply put, as the fares have increased, the quality of service has decreased. Buses are regularly erratic, late, or don’t show up at all; trains are frequently disabled. I often encounter turnstiles and escalators that are out of service, along with crumbling sets of stairs. The service interruptions during the winter of 2015 were deplorable, and need not be rehashed here.

Cumulatively, the T riding experience of late is one that is embarrassing, inefficient, and oftentimes unsafe. And with each passing year, the same ineffective solutions get proposed: more cuts in service, more increases in fares. The political will is, in a word, lacking.

I’d like to see some real, creative, and sustainable solutions to solving the continuing issues plaguing the MBTA.

  • To begin, the Commonwealth needs to forgive the Big Dig debt that the T has inherited, so future revenues can be allocated to much-needed capital and service improvements.
  • Second, an analysis of inefficiencies and dishonest practices should be undertaken with the goal of real accountability and reform, particularly in terms of expensive and egregious offenses (such as the 2,600 hours of overtime claimed by one employee) stopped cold. Such abuses should not be permitted to continue, nor should taxpayers be beholden financially for the T’s mismanagement.
  • Third, an income-to-increase proposal should be seriously considered, so the lowest-income riders (e.g., students, the elderly, and disabled) are not shouldering the bulk of the financial burden with each proposed increase. Those who ride the T and have higher income brackets should pay their proportionate share.
  • Lastly, we need to engage the full wealth of resources at the Commonwealth’s disposal to finally solve this continuing crisis. For example, we have world-class universities with budding engineers, economists, financial experts, and urban planners right in our backyard. Why not take advantage of them? The Commonwealth could kick off a public-private partnership challenge grant program, where groups of students could submit sustainable plans to fix the T, with criteria covering improving services and cutting costs over the coming years. The winning group could receive free tuition/student loan forgiveness and seed funding to kickstart their proposal, in partnership with key stakeholders at the T and branches of state and local governments. This certainly would be more cost effective, and more innovative, than the current same-old same-old proposals.

In closing, I’ll offer an anecdote. I recently was on a flight back to Boston from Tokyo, surrounded by scientists and engineers who were coming here for a conference. When we landed after a 12+ hour flight, the gentleman next to me asked whether he should take a cab or the T to his airport near Hynes Convention Center. I am almost always a T advocate, but I asked this man whether he lived in Tokyo and was used to efficient public transit. He was, and so instead I told him to take a cab. It pained me to do so. But I knew, based on consistent recent experience, that his T ride would be spotty at best, lengthy, and confusing. His first impression of Boston would likely be a very negative one.

I then thought of how many international visitors Boston receives every year, and how poorly our transit system must measure up when compared with other countries, places where public transit is valued, deemed worthy of investment, and recognized as a social good.

We are falling behind, but it is not because of a passive electorate. If anything, the public–if these comments meetings are any indication–is more engaged than ever. It is our leaders who are the real disappointment, for letting the T deteriorate this far.

So in closing, under current conditions, I strongly oppose the fare increase. But start showing some real civic commitment to the T, and the public will invest along with you.

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