How The T Got Into Its Mess

Protesters pretend to be crushed under an effigy of MBTA and so-called Big Dig debt along in front of the Statehouse in February. (AP)

Protesters pretend to be crushed under an effigy of MBTA and so-called Big Dig debt along in front of the Statehouse in February. (AP)

BOSTON — It’s late Friday afternoon, and State Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey and I are riding on the underground bus from South Station to Logan Airport. It’s one of the most popular services the T has added in the last 10 years.

“You can note how crowded this bus is right now going to the airport,” Davey said. “It’s pretty full.”

In just one year, from 2010 to 2011, the number of people who take the Silver Line to Logan jumped by 60 percent.

In recent years, the T has also added commuter rail service to Worcester and Fitchburg and more cross-town buses.

“We added, 18 months ago, three-car trains on the Green Line, for example a very modest increase in service, but one our customers were asking for,” Davey said.

More Debt, More Problems

But with the new services come increasing costs. And now, it’s gotten to the point where even if someone paid off the MBTA’s entire $160 million deficit, the organization would still be in trouble. That’s because with interest payments, the T’s debt grows every year. Next year, it’ll cost an extra $40 million, the year after that, another $100 million, and the year after that, another $170 million. Davey explains that the biggest budget problem– in fact, almost the entire problem– that the T faces is its massive debt.

“So this year alone, the MBTA will pay, we estimate, about $125 million in debt service for these Big Dig transit commitments, which is fairly close to the operating deficit that we have,” Davey said.

But Davey wants to clear something up about the T and the Big Dig.

“I think there is a misconception that the T paid for tunnels, or roads, or ramps,” Davey said. “It didn’t. It absolutely did not.”

What he does say is that to get approval for the Big Dig, the state had to agree to build several big transit projects. They include the Greenbush commuter line to the South Shore, the extension of the Green Line beyond Lechmere and the Silver Line tunnel from South Station to South Boston.

Cheap Fares

Anther problem is how low fares are. Of the 24 transit services in the country with rail service, the T is one of just two that have not raised fares in the last five years.

“Our subway system is one of the lowest fares in America, and ironically, even if we move our monthly pass, which is $59 today, to $70 or $80, which is two of our proposals, it’ll still be one of the lowest monthly fares if you compare us to New York, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, L.A.,” Davey said.

What makes this budget crisis especially frustrating for Davey is that it comes just as people are showing they need the T more than ever, as more people find work and gas prices soar.

“You’re talking about a service that had the highest ridership in modern history last year,” Davey said. “We moved almost 380 million people last year, and that was a record for the MBTA.”

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  • Anonymous

    Please dig into the unionized T workers, see how many unqualified T employees are milking the T 
    and the only reason they keep their jobs because they have the protection of the Union. 
    And please look in to how much corruptions the Big Dig contractors have pocketed. 
    I bet if the T recover all these money, it would not be in this mess.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/P7S27UVVZ467GZNV6ZSQACRFXA Dave

    Please don’t forget that, as part of the mitigation effort, the state also “agreed” to fill an obvious missing link in the system by connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line at Charles MGH.   They’ve since “unagreed”, largely due to the NIMBY efforts of Beacon Hill residents (many of whom are loyal WBUR donors… perhaps that’s why this was left out of the article)?

  • Jason Baade

    I rely on the MBTA commuter rail line to get to and from work everyday. I take two trains each way. It’s great. However, the proposed increase in my monthly pass (~40%) is prohibitive. The T is about to become unaffordable to me and I will find an inexpensive car for my commute. I think the MBTA is about to find that a lot of people are in the same boat. I predict a drastic decline in ridership, followed by a cashflow problem. How are they going to pay debt without money coming in?

  • JJH

    I take the T and yes service isn’t that great but it will get you where you need to be. I’ve lived in NY, SF and DC and while all these metro systems are advanced, they are expensive! We didn’t have a massive blizzard this year, so service has been fairly reliable. Despite the protests, I would not mind the fare increases. But why haven’t we heard the other issues, like the parking lots? Surely then can help with revenue if the MBTA actually owned them!!

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      JJH, t he T is proposing up to a $3 increase in parking fees at T stations. 

      • Ms Jjoseph@yahoo.com

        Ok….what about all the subsized T programs and having MBTA employees pay a potion of their fares instead of being completely gratis?

  • Anonymous

    Raise the individual ride prices at a high rate not the monthly passes.  Occasional users won’t notice the difference.

    No more free rides on New Years, etc.

    Stop the alcohol ad ban or make the agency that backed that pay for it out of its budget.

    Comparing the MBTA to the NY subway is a joke.  The service is not comparable.

    Why did WBUR take the nicest service at non rush hour for this story?  Why not the Green line at rush hour?

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      J_o_h_n, it’s true that New York has 468 subway stations, while Boston only has 51, New York has 24 subway lines, while Boston has only 3, and New York has 229 miles of subway tracks, while Boston only has 38. 

      I decided to take the Silver Line because it was at the same time a project that was part of the Big Dig burden of debt, and a new service added in the last 10 years. And we did go at rush hour!

      • Anonymous

        I thought you went at 4:00 on a Friday.  Try Mon – Thurs at 5:10 on the green line. 

        • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

          I did go at 4 on a Friday, but that’s rush hour for the Silver Line to Logan. 

  • X-Ray

    Spend, spend, spend.  What does the “T” think it is, the Federal government?

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      X-Ray, I think the point is the T’s problems come because it has been saddled with this huge debt from the transit projects the state had to build in order to get the Big Dig built. The question is how you eliminate that deficit. 

    • Anonymous

      No, it’s the state government.

  • gigabyte

    did you read the article?  the spending was agreed by others.  All fares should go up.  why should monthly riders continue to get super discounts – share the costs!

    • Anonymous

      Share the costs with the people who now drive into Boston without monthly pass holders on the road (which our tax money pays for too). 

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      gigabyte, under the T’s proposals, all fares would go up, including monthly riders. Under the first proposal, monthly passes would go up from $59 to $80, and under the second proposal, they would go up from $59 to $78.

  • Anonymous

    Put aside animosities, recriminations and nasty remarks and let’s seek solutions instead. In most of urban America public transportation is moving forward for obvious reasons.  Though Boston had one of the earliest subway systems in the country our system now seems too often to be a train running backwards. What can be done to bring this system up to where it should be ?

  • http://text.donschaefer.net allfive

    Where was the cost commitment planning for the Big Dig promises?  The future is a robust public transportation system. Let’s focus on retiring the insane debt now. Everyone should chip in. Call it a Past Promises attachment to a gas tax hike. A better T benefits all.

  • Paul

    Stop spending federal funds to fix the Fitchburg Commuter
    Rail Line. Substantial upgrades are not necessary it works fine the way it is
    save $150 million of taxpayers’ money.

  • Ed

    my question is what percentage of the T ridership uses monthly passes, and are there better economics and usage possible by raising the individual ticket price while improving the monthly pass discount (could be accomplished by keeping monthly passes the same and raising per ride rates)? Even as a regular commuter each month I have to do the math and often a monthly pass is barely worth it because the discount is so weak. In my scenario there would be lower costs for individual toll collection because more people would be using unlimited passes, ridership might increase somewhat, but I suspect most people would follow roughly the same habits as today but now be more likely to be holding a pass and increasing revenue to the MBTA and regularity of that revenue. Just one idea.

    Also what rate are they paying on the debt? They ought to have some very low rates being a state entity.

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