Your Money or Your Bus

Photo by Chelsea Kyle

This week, the MBTA released two scenarios to deal with a projected FY13 budget deficit of $161 million. Scenario 1 fills the gap with close to 80 percent fare increases and 20 percent service cuts. Scenario 2 roughly splits the difference between service cuts and fare increases.

A quick review of the impact study tells me two things: first, Scenario 1 is the one that the MBTA really wants, and second, the ire of the public will quickly be focused onto Scenario 2, which proposes by far the more radical trimming of bus operations — that is, the elimination of 23.6 percent of bus trips and reduced ridership by about the same amount. The T’s bus system could use some consolidation and a greater focus on increasing throughput, but that’s a pretty big pill to swallow in one shot.

What’s more, the concentrated impact of Scenario 2 on bus service — reducing ridership by 24 percent, as opposed to the 2 percent that would hit the subway service — will also attract attention. Bus riders are more concentrated in Boston (full disclosure: I’m one of those riders), and urban politicians are sure to react strongly to this plan. Another problematic aspect of this scenario is its reliance on headcount reduction for cost savings. It forecasts a reduction of 564 MBTA jobs. Given past history, such as the launch of automated fare collection, which resulted in no immediate reduction in headcount, and the strength of the Carmen’s Union, I’m skeptical that the will exists to implement this.

I encourage you to take a read through the study and draw your own conclusions. Despite my misgivings about portions of it, there’s a lot of good thinking here: raising fares (and considering them in the context of other urban systems), eliminating certain low ridership/high subsidy bus routes, increasing fees, and decreasing or eliminating subsidies for other services.

What’s not in here, but needs to be discussed at some point, is a way forward. Is the MBTA going to be in perpetual “$160 million yearly structural deficit” mode? If so, these short-term fire drills don’t address the long-term problem. And on the topic of the long haul, am I the only person who sees the contradiction between spending on long-term expansion (Green Line extension, South Coast Rail) when we can’t fund the operations of the current system and when cold (not even inclement) weather seems to be an increasing challenge to operations?

No one, myself included, likes to pay more in fares. But I’d be willing to pay more if it meant an improvement in reliability and service quality. I’m hopeful someone makes that case in an accountable and public way.

Crossposted at Pioneer Institute’s blog.