By the Perspective Staff
The 1949 protest folk song “M.T.A.,” also known as “Charlie on the MTA,” tells the story of a man named Charlie who is trapped on the T because he is unable to pay his exit fare. Originally a campaign anthem for Progressive Party mayoral candidate Walter O’Brien (who promised to keep T fares low), the song has become a key part of Boston’s cultural lore – and its protagonist is now the namesake of the CharlieCard.
The state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston, home to the first rapid transit stations in the country (Park St. and Boylston), have a proud history of supporting public transportation. Yet, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, in response to pressure from the state, raised fares and cut some services earlier this month, and it will likely implement even more severe fare hikes and service cuts in the near future. These changes are designed to reduce the T’s $160 billion deficit and $5.2 billion debt. However, not only are these new measures detrimental to the environment; they will also negatively affect the social and economic livelihood of low-income people, students, and others who rely on public transportation. Rather than punishing T riders by reducing an essential public service, the state should seek more just ways to both deal with the deficit and strengthen and improve the T.
Given the negative externalities of automobiles, from local pollution to exacerbated global warming, the government should be doing as much as possible to encourage people to travel on trains and buses. Unfortunately, in the past, both the state and national government have often done just the opposite. In 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act authorized the construction of the Interstate Highway System, the largest public works program in history. Though this program was beneficial in many ways, it also enabled unsustainable development patterns (i.e. suburban sprawl) and furthered urban-suburban segregation.
More recently, Boston’s $22 billion Big Dig highway improvement project increased the incentive to drive and mostly benefitted middle and upper class suburbanites. The Big Dig is a main reason for the MBTA’s current financial woes, for $3.6 billion of Big Dig debt was forced onto the MBTA through “forward funding” and other measures. This debt transfer, in turn, led to the current fare hikes and service cuts, unfairly harming lower-income Boston-area residents.
This is not the first instance of economic injustice resulting from the restructuring of the MBTA. In 1987, the MBTA rerouted the Orange Line so that it no longer connected Dudley Square, Roxbury (a largely black working-class neighborhood) to downtown Boston, effectively isolating the area. In response to community activist pressure, the MBTA provided a bus, and subsequently a Silver Line bus, to transport Dudley Square residents to and from downtown. Yet residents still refer to this bus as the “silver lie,” for it provides inferior and slower service compared to the Orange Line.
Similarly, the stricter deficit-slashing proposals on the table would eliminate some train and bus routes that connect low income communities and communities of color – such as Mattapan, a working-class neighborhood that is ¾ African American or Caribbean American – to the rest of the city.
In the face of these unjust proposals, a broad base of local and community activists have fought to protect public transportation in Boston and across the state. For instance, the Youth Affordabili(T) Coalition (YAC) has already united 22 groups, ranging from the Boston Student Advisory Council to the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, to protect the MBTA, and the Coalition’s numbers are growing. YAC members and others have testified at public hearings and continue to hold rallies to fight against fare hikes and service cuts and to advocate for a Youth T Pass and more bus routes.
The coalition also supports more reasonable ways to reduce the T’s debt. These include encouraging Boston-area universities to pay for university passes for their students, renegotiating the MBTA’s interest rate swaps with banks, and removing the T’s Big Dig (i.e. forward funding) debt. Another long-term solution would be to increase the gas tax, which Massachusetts has not done since 1991, even while it has raised T fares multiple times. Raising the gas tax would create an incentive for people to use public transportation rather than driving; it would also shift the burden of payment away from low-income urban residents.
As a public program, the MBTA ought to focus on serving the residents of Massachusetts well, rather than maximizing cost-efficiency as a private business might do. Public transportation is a hallmark of a modern city in which people are free to travel for work, school, or pleasure, rather than remaining trapped in their own neighborhoods. Public transportation can also be a great equalizer, for it enables people without access to a car – such as students, low-income people, and the elderly – to access a city’s economic, educational, and social opportunities. Furthermore, the MBTA serves to connect and unite the residents of an often-segregated metropolitan area. Additionally, strong public transportation systems curb automobile use and incentivize environmentally sustainable urban living.
The Occupy movement, in both its style and message, has drawn attention to importance of public space and the public sphere. In the face of nationwide austerity measures, we at Perspective hope that the MBTA will avoid fare hikes and service cuts, continue to provide comprehensive and affordable public transportation for people across the state, and stand as a force for environmental and social justice in Massachusetts.