How The T Got Into Its Mess

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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)

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."

This program aired on March 13, 2012.

Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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