With a fiscal cliff and expensive, increasingly likely federal safety mandates bearing down on the MBTA, it’s clear Beacon Hill will need to do more to protect this critical infrastructure if it wants to keep its climate and housing production goals on track.
The agency is caught in a budgetary bind right now. It must spend money today on new services like a revamped bus system necessary to draw new riders and vital to helping Massachusetts cut its carbon emissions and solve its housing crisis. But it’s saddled with an outdated financing model that relies on suburban commuters paying high fares to reach office jobs in downtown Boston to raise a significant chunk of its revenue.
The net result is a budget deficit that could reach $467 million in just a few years, with no obvious way to close it if suburban office workers never fully return to the office – if they do at all. And that deficit could get worse if Federal Transit Administration safety investigators begin issuing directives that must be prioritized before all other spending.
Unfortunately, service cuts – a natural response for many businesspeople in this situation – will make the situation worse. Transit agencies only attract sufficient riders when they are able to connect many disparate places. An elegant demonstration can be seen at any bus hub like Ruggles or major train station like Back Bay Station, where travelers from one part of the city jump from one line to another to access a completely different part of the metro.
Despite the hype surrounding electric cars, it’s clear – from the costly additional power infrastructure they’ll require, the space they’ll still take up on the roads, their sheer cost to the consumer and the time it will take to turn over the state’s private car fleets – they can’t carry the weight of transitioning Massachusetts off fossil fuels. Expanded, widespread and frequent public transit networks are the only cost-effective way forward here.
Likewise, effective and useful transit networks are the only keystone available when it comes to adding enough new housing to address our state’s crushing affordability problems. Parking is expensive to build – especially near job centers and in community hubs where new housing delivers the most benefits to its community – and jacks up the price of new housing. But it’s politically necessary without good nearby transit, something to remember as state leaders try to push Boston’s suburbs to build housing in town centers and around transit stops.
While the state needs to have a larger conversation about modernizing transit funding, the legislature needs to take smaller steps now, before a consensus on the way forward is reached, in order to adequately fund safety improvements and protect vital projects like modernizing the T’s antique bus network.
The $60 million in additional funding likely to be included in the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget is a good start. Additional steps like having the state take over the remaining $100 million in Big Dig debt the MBTA was unfairly saddled with years ago could offer vital breathing room as the agency navigates the next few, uncertain months.
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