We don’t know what the future holds. The MBTA says it needs to make deep cuts based on scenarios that forecast extended low ridership. But the fact of the matter is that the future is unknown. Recently, it was reported that more than one COVID-19 vaccine may be approved for initial use before the end of year, raising optimism for a faster end to the pandemic. With so much uncertainty, it’s best to play it safe, avoiding cuts so we know service will be there when we need it.
Service would take years to add back. In September, MBTA staff stressed that any cuts would be permanent. After public outcry, the Authority has changed its tune, saying there will be multiple opportunities to add back service. But in fact, according to the MBTA itself, it could take more than a year, possibly two, to re-hire and re-train skilled labor.
The MBTA has been struggling for years. The MBTA was already struggling before the pandemic—largely due to a high debt load, years of underfunding and bad privatization deals. Cuts now would gut an already insufficient system. More than 19,000 riders will lose access to transit, and almost 300,000 riders would have to wait longer for their bus, train, or the RIDE. Anyone who used public transit before the pandemic knows buses and trains were regularly overcrowded. Taking vehicles out of service now will ensure that unpleasant crowding conditions will return. Worsening of already-strained service could lead to a “death spiral,” as people chose not to use slow and overcrowded transit, and decreased ridership is in turn used as an excuse for further cuts.
We can afford to keep transit running. Pre-pandemic, many riders were already struggling with the cost of bus or train fare. And the pandemic has shown that relying on fare revenue to fund the system is not sustainable during times of crisis. But other sources of funding would be both more dependable and come from sources who can afford to pay. Corporations that are profiting during the pandemic—like Fidelity, Amazon, Wayfair and others—can afford to pay a bit more of their substantial gains to support essential public services like transit. And Massachusetts billionaires—like Robert Kraft, Fidelity CEO Abigail Johnson, and Baupost CEO Seth Klarman–can certainly afford to chip in more for taxes to support the public good.
Cuts will harm our environment. Based on the MBTA’s own estimates, more than 19,000 people will lose access to transit at the time and place they need it. These people, along with many of the hundreds of thousands who face longer wait times, are likely to turn to cars if they can. As we know, automobile pollution drives climate change, and helps create the bad air quality that is known to worsen COVID outcomes, especially in environmental justice communities hardest hit by the disease.
Cuts will worsen unemployment. The MBTA hasn’t disclosed how many people will lose their jobs, hundreds of people employed within the MBTA system will likely be put out of work. We also know that public transit has indirect and induced job impact, meaning the economic toll of cuts will extend far beyond MBTA workers. Massachusetts is already struggling with a high unemployment rate and unemployment insurance needs. Our public agencies should work to mitigate unemployment, not add to it.
The MBTA’s process is strikingly undemocratic. At a time when an historic presidential election has focused our attention on the fundamental importance of democracy, the MBTA has done little to ensure public input is respected. In 2012, facing proposed cuts of a similar magnitude, the MBTA held two dozen meetings over the span of three months. This time there are only 10 public meetings, scheduled over a period of just three weeks. The electronic format of these meetings means the MBTA has more control over the process; rather than allowing the time necessary for public comment, the Authority has cut off members of the public who wished to have their voices heard.
Cuts could increase crowding on public transit. Back in May, the MBTA adopted a crowding standard that called for only three feet between riders, not the six feet recommended everywhere else (and by the CDC for transit riders). Even using the MBTA’s not-very-strict definition, the most heavily used bus lines—which mostly serve communities of color–regularly have crowding. Taking buses and train cars out of service could lead to even more crowding on board transit. While it’s not clear that transit use raises COVID-19 transmission risk for riders, we do know that more than 170 MBTA employees have contracted the virus, and one inspector passed away in April.
Essential workers need good public transit. The pandemic made it clear that some workers play an outsized role in helping us meet our basic needs at a time of crisis. These essential workers include nurses, doctors and other health care providers, grocery store and other food system workers, social and public service workers, and distribution and transportation workers, including of course, MBTA workers. Not surprisingly, given that they cannot work from home, essential workers already face a higher burden of COVID infection. Many essential workers have continued to rely on public transit to get to their jobs—in many cases because despite the importance of their work, it is low paid, meaning the bus or train is the only affordable option. Essential workers deserve not only thanks—they deserve a public transit system that is as accessible, as equitable and as safe as possible.
Public transit is a public good. Secretary of Transportation Pollock and some MBTA officials have suggested that it is not worth the cost to run public transit if ridership is low. Secretary Pollack has suggested that public transit’s “business model” is no longer working. But what these officials misunderstand is that public transit is not a business, it is a public good. Public goods are provided for the benefit or well-being of the public, not for profit. Although ridership is down, the MBTA continues to provide benefit to all of us. For the reasons listed above and more, the FMCB should oppose the cuts and focus instead on capturing sustainable, progressive, and equitable new revenue to maintain and expand service.