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March 02, 2012

Boston Area Transit Under Threat

If you’ve ever spent time in the Boston area, you know it’s one of the best places in which to get around on public transportation. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or “the T” as we locals call it, serves 1.3 million riders every week day on its buses, trains, ferries, and commuter rails. Our air is cleaner, our roads are less congested, our economy is stronger, and our lives are more convenient because of the T. And with gas prices rising, more people will be looking to the T as an affordable way to get around.

However, the T is under threat. The agency is nearly $6 billion in debt, due to an unfair arrangement through which the MA legislature saddled the T with debt from the “Big Dig” expansion of Boston area’s highways. The T has announced that it plans to significantly slash service and raise fares as a way to balance its books. Between 10 and 38 million of us may be left without service.

Currently, the T is in the midst of holding dozens of public hearings to share their proposed changes and to hear from us, the transit riders. These hearings have been packed. In fact, this week we attended the Cambridge hearing where some of the more than 200 people in attendance were forced into overflow rooms. More than 100 of us spoke, and the sentiments expressed demonstrated just how alarmed we are.

The athletic director at Cambridge Ringe & Latin High School said that 720 student athletes each year rely on the T to get to athletic activities and back home. Many of the students also spoke up and said that the proposed cuts would leave them without any way to get to school at all, and the proposed doubling of the student fare passes –compared to the proposed 20-50% increase on regular fare passes—would be a sizable burden to many of their families. Many advocates said that they believed that the proposed 175% fare increase on passes for the elderly and those with disabilities represented outright discrimination.

The head of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce said that the T is the main “reason why 105,000 people work here in this city.” Indeed, many others said they would not be able to get to work if the proposed cuts went into effect.

MA Sierra Club Chapter Director James McCaffrey stated: “Air quality is going to get worse because fare increases and /or service cuts leave no choice for people other than to get in their cars and sit in traffic. Saddling the MBTA with millions in debt from a highway expansion project is the ultimate insult to public health, the environment, and the millions of MA residents who rely on public transportation. All options should be on the table to solve this crisis, including establishing a vehicle surcharge and raising the gas tax.”

For the writers of this blog post, if these cuts were to take effect, one of us would have no bus to take our children to the library and soccer games on Saturdays, a spouse would have no bus to get to work, and one of our monthly commuter rail passes would increase by 40 percent despite the loss of evening and weekend service. One of us may actually need to purchase a second family car, meaning a huge expense, more pain at the pump, more pollution, and near absurdity in a city like Cambridge.

If you are a T rider and haven’t yet spoken up, we encourage you to submit written comments to fareproposal@mbta.com.

We were glad to see several city councilors, state senators ,and state representatives in attendance at the Cambridge hearing. We hope that leaders from the T, the legislature, and elsewhere will put in place a fair and forward-looking solution to this challenge that supports and does not punish transit riders.

Drew Grande is the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts Beyond Coal Organizer, and Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Senior Campaign Representative for Electric Vehicles.


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