At the end of June, thanks to a $100 million bailout allocated in the state’s budget, the board of the Massachusetts Turnpike recinded toll hikes that were scheduled to take place on July 1st. The proposed increase would have raised tolls at the Allston-Brighton toll booths from a modest $1.25 to a still modest $2.00 – the same as the cash fare for riding the MBTA’s subway in Boston. Political outcry from politicians west of Boston, where much of the inbound car traffic on the Turnpike originates, was loud, and they championed the bailout. A group of angry motorists celebrated the bailout, but insisted they wouldn’t stop fighting until tolls were removed entirely from the MassPike.
Interestingly, the source of the MassPike bailout money is the 1.25% increase in Massachusetts’ sales tax. So, instead of passing on the cost of the turnpike’s operations to the people who use it, the state stopped the toll increase by passing on the cost to those who don’t drive on the MassPike – including those who don’t even own a car.
Now, just two weeks after, the MBTA – facing a similar budget shortfall – is proposing a 20 percent fare hike. This is after a $160 million infusion of cash from the same state budget. Of course, even before the state budget was passed, the MBTA was clear in how much money it would need to avoid a fare hike or service cuts. But thanks to the wrangling on Beacon Hill, the votes weren’t there to fully fund the MBTA, as the budget came up about $69 million short.
Of course, that won’t stop the riders and the media from blaming the MBTA. Myriad falsehoods will give the perception that the MBTA is squandering its money. First, they will blame them for squandering state money, which the agency expressly stated was not enough to avoid fare hikes or service cuts. Then, they will blame them for squandering Federal stimulus money while acting blissfully unaware that stimulus money cannot be used to fund operations. Barring all else, they will blame the MBTA for not being upfront about its finances. Never mind that his fare hike shouldn’t blindside anyone. It was in the cards.
Admittedly, the MBTA does have a credibility gap. Last week, the agency came under fire for giving free Charlie Cards to its employees and retirees. A fatal crash last year is suspected to have been the result of an MBTA worker using a cell phone while on the job. Another driver was indicted this week for texting on the job, resulting in a crash on the green line that cost the MBTA $9 million. This alone is a huge challenge for the MBTA to overcome, but it’s no reason to blame them for the budget shortfall that the state of Massachusetts was unwilling to deal with.
The simple solution would be for the state to find the $69 million the MBTA needs to stop the fare hike. That’s obviously not as simple as it sounds. Just as the proposed and rescinded toll hikes and gas tax hikes are politically unpopular, taxpayer dollars funding public transit seem to be a red herring in Boston.
[Transportation Secretary James] Aloisi has said several times in recent weeks that he looks forward to the day when fare hikes on the MBTA, which affect some of the state’s poorest residents, are as politically unacceptable as higher tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike and an increase in the gas tax, which drew significant opposition when they were proposed by Patrick.
It’s not even strength in numbers: 1.3 million people ride the MBTA’s subways and trains each year, and all of them will be forced to pony up more because the state was unwilling to fund it. Meanwhile, the 120,000 drivers who pass through the Allston-Brighton tolls on the MassPike each day won’t pay a penny more. On top of that, those drivers will be discouraged from using the three trolley lines, two commuter rail lines, and countless bus lines that parallel the road. It’s a shame that Aloisi seems to be the only one on Beacon Hill who’s willing to admit the hypocrisy in giving drivers a free pass and shoving a fare hike down the throats of transit riders.
(Photo via msr on Flickr)