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Don't Gut The MBTA During The Pandemic. Front-Line Workers Need It

A MBTA Green Line train leaving Science Park Station en route to Lechmere. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A MBTA Green Line train leaving Science Park Station en route to Lechmere. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

For decades, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has suffered from a chronic lack of investment. The bottom fell out during the record-breaking winter storms of 2015. Since then, the MBTA has carried out layoffsservice cutsfare hikes and misguided privatization and “public-private partnership” schemes that have not solved our region’s transit problems. We have seen train derailments and other safety failures during that time.

COVID-19 has only made the situation worse as fare revenues have dropped. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the T’s own leadership is threatening to derail the system by enacting a series of hastily considered budget and service cuts.

MBTA management and the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB) are planning massive service cuts -- totaling up to $150 million -- that would slow the state’s economic recovery, increase vehicle traffic and pollution, and reduce access to the system for riders throughout the system, including those who depend on it for survival.

Gutting service will worsen economic opportunity at a time when the state’s economy is already struggling. Those of us who continue to rely on transit during the pandemic are largely low-income, immigrants and people of color, who need transit to stay afloat. Our communities are hardest hit by COVID-19, and we are most likely to be front-line workers — ranging from grocery and fast-food employees to health care providers, working jobs that can’t be done from home. MBTA cuts would also limit the ability of those of us who used to commute — but are currently working from home — to get back on the train, bus or ferry once the pandemic is under control. The ripple effects on downtown businesses small and large are already evident.

Those of us who continue to rely on transit during the pandemic are largely low-income, immigrants and people of color, who need transit to stay afloat.

A weakened T could also result in a surge of cars on our roads. A daily headache for commuters, traffic congestion brings increased pollution that is associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes in places like Chelsea, which has had one of the highest pandemic tolls in the commonwealth. Of course, automobile pollution also accelerates climate change, which is already having a profound impact on our state.

Transit officials say they're trying to protect the routes in low-income areas and communities of color. But the economic and environmental benefits make it clear: Public transit is a public good. Today, community and labor groups are coming together to relaunch a coalition formed during a previous crisis: the Public Transit, Public Good Coalition. We are calling on legislators and the MBTA to stop the cuts, find new sources of progressive revenue for transit statewide and assure a meaningful public voice in the process.

In 2012, when considering service cuts of a smaller magnitude, the T held dozens of public meetings spanning three months. This time, they’ve allowed just four weeks between recommending specific cuts; specific proposals will be presented to the Fiscal Management Control Board on Nov. 9 and voted on by the same body on Dec. 7.

There is not enough time to hold public hearings, much less to respond meaningfully to public input. At its Oct. 19 meeting, the FMCB refused to play all of the recorded public comments it had received about the planned cuts, a move that did not raise riders’ confidence that their voices will be heard. The planned cuts would take effect in July 2021.

And of course, the November election could dramatically alter the chance of federal aid ...

Bold action by the Massachusetts Legislature could help avert the needs for service cuts. We need new revenues that come from wealthy individuals and big corporations that are doing well, even during the pandemic. (Corporations like Fidelity, Wayfair, Amazon and others who do business in the state have thrived since the pandemic hit. And over the first three months of the pandemic, 18 Massachusetts billionaires saw their wealth increase by almost $17 billion.) Last spring, the House transportation bill included a new tiered structure for the corporate minimum tax that could raise $150 million. This and other progressive revenues — such as an increase in the tax rates on unearned income and corporate income — could raise over $1 billion annually to fund transit and other public goods. And of course, the election could dramatically alter the chance of federal aid — it doesn’t make sense to lock in permanent cuts at a time of so much uncertainty at the federal level.

As home to the first subway in the Western Hemisphere, Boston has been a transit-oriented city for more than a century. Much of our region's economic success is due to the connectivity that a transit system provides. We are now at a point where, rather than cuts, major investment is needed to bring the system into the 21st century and expand it for the sake of our economic growth potential. As transit riders and transit workers, we call on the T and the legislature to make that investment, not cuts that will hurt us all.

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Mike Vartabedian Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Mike Vartabedian is the Assistant Directing Business Representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), District 15.

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Olivia Nichols Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Olivia Nichols is the transit justice organizer with GreenRoots, an environmental justice organization that works to achieve transportation justice and a vision of greater equitable mobility with its base communities of Chelsea and East Boston.

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