MBTA's budget paradox: an empty feeling in pockets and guts
Andrew conducts the communications efforts for CMS (websites, press relations, and project and event publicity) as well as those for MIT's Center for Civic Media and the MIT Game Lab.
A native of Washington, D.C., he holds a degree in communication from Wake Forest University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. His marketing and P.R. skills were honed at Houghton Mifflin and Tufts University. He was also the long-time fiction editor for Identity Theory and followed up with a literary tool website, called Readsfeed.
MBTA's budget paradox: an empty feeling in pockets and guts
(This post stretches in different directions, but the question I'd like your thoughts on is: what would a civic media tool look like that helps people make decisions in their community's long-term interest?)
The front page of Boston.com yesterday was filled with articles -- both new and re-promoted -- about Boston's transit agency's budget paradox.
The MBTA's debt has many fathers: from the too-young dads who didn't plan for the future, which every city seems have, to absentee fathers, like agencies outside the MBTA who thought it was a great idea to cover any cost overruns of the Big Dig by dumping that debt on the MBTA. (Perversely, environmentalists and fans of interstates were on the same side of this...balance the environmental impact of constructing a highway by, in turn, expanding the mass transit system, yet have no real plan to pay for either.)
Here's the paradox. The improvement of Boston's public transit system, paid for through debt, was to 1) reduce car-travel by 2) spawning development of housing and businesses around new and improved subway stops. And as intended, this created a surge in both development and ridership. But poor planning meant such a surge could only be accommodated by incurring more debt.
The MBTA can pay off the debt in three ways -- increase ridership, raise fares, or cut service. Indeed, they've tried all three. But the debt is so large, and the necessary changes to ridership, fares, and service so despised by the public, that it would cause a collapse in all three as well. Increase ridership, service collapses. Increase fares, ridership collapses. Increase service, fares increase. Boston is now the southern Europe of mass transit. (And like Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal, the MBTA has avoided insolvency soley through a series of bailouts.)
You read these articles from the Globe, and you have an empty feeling not only in your pocket but in your gut. You know this situation is bad.
The 390 million transit trips in Greater Boston last year were the most since 1946, and the T has registered a record 15 straight months of ridership growth. Fare increases scheduled for July 1 could dampen the numbers temporarily.
But authors of the study from the Boston branch of the [Urban Land Institute], a national nonprofit, issue this warning: Riders who think it is crowded now should be prepared for 20 percent more company by the end of the decade.
Developers are clamoring to build in areas near public transit, and real estate trends, state and local policy, gas prices, and highway traffic are causing demand for the MBTA to grow faster than the regional population.
But without investment in more subway cars, better power and signal systems, and other tools to relieve MBTA crowding, scattered congestion will become widespread, with riders at “hot spots’’ unable to board because cars are too full, and with backups and bottlenecks causing delays systemwide, according to the “Hub and Spoke’’ report.
So what's the result? Travelers have new incentives to drive instead of take mass transit and thus new incentives to move away from mass transit, leaving the MBTA with still fewer riders and income, resulting in more cutbacks, resulting in more drivers.
[T]he mere presence of the T is not enough. Without improvements for capacity -- larger train sets, more frequent service -- development will stall or scatter toward farther-flung sites that put more cars on the road, increasing highway congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
In a spiral, fleeing riders drive up the necessary price-per-rider, causing more riders to flee. The only solution, as it is in Europe, is a deeply resented socialization of debt. Just as the Big Dig debt was shifted onto the MBTA, the MBTA's debt will be shifted onto individuals. And like in Europe, it would be better to do this in an orderly fashion...
Boston's is the oldest mass transit system in the United States. It's both a source of pride and frustration. As the state and MBTA search for ways to pay off the debt, riders panic -- and protest -- about those cost increases and service cutbacks without (at least as the Globe covers the story) acknowledging that keeping costs and service at current levels may leave Boston with no functioning public transportation at all. Again, the Greece parallel: Greeks can stay in the Euro and have a decade of externally-imposed austerity, or they can be prideful, reintroduce the drachma, and have five decades of self-inflicted austerity.
It's gut-wrenching in the MBTA's case too. Debt-driven development as debt-driven development may well cut off the handicapped and the elderly from their only transportation option. And in a less provocative but more destructive way, it may well cut off businesses from their cutomers and employees from their employers.
This paradox is one that I don't think civic media knows yet how to untangle, though it goes back to the earliest critiques of democracy. We as a Center have gotten good at making tools that help a wider range of people have a stronger voice in their civic decision-making and in determing their collective future. But how does a community, local or national, hedge against using those tools to make poor long-term decisions? If the Greek election this weekend succeeds in giving voice through a democratic process -- if it votes in an anti-austerity, damn-the-Euro government -- all predictions are that Greece leaves the Euro, Spain's borrowing costs rise to unsustainable levels, and Europe drags the world back into recession worse than '08. Because of voters in Greece (and to a significant but lesser extent, those in Germany), countries like the U.S. who don't and shouldn't have direct influence in Greece's elections, well, their economies get screwed too.
Likewise, on the smaller MBTA scale, intransigence on fare increases and service cutbacks, born of short-termism, means we're at the point that we either mutualize its debt (that is, in one way or another, raise taxes) or shut the system down. Both are awful options. But the former is the only way that works. Pessimists would say that what Greece is to Europe, T riders are to the MBTA.
So the open question for our researchers: how will we go about creating tools that succeed in giving voice both to particular underrepresented interests (such as our Center's own admirable work with children, rural communities, domestic workers, and others) and to the common good? Madison's solution, in Federalist No. 10, was to blunt "factions" with representative, rather than direct, democracy. But when long-term, representative decision-making takes a back seat to short-term, direct action, whether in the form of what we think of as direct action but also in the more corrosive form of campaign financing, what tools will work in a crisis that create the least-bad result for the community as a whole?
 A fourth option, radical restructuring, including breaking unions, hasn't been seriously discussed, at least not in Massachusetts. A fifth option, legislation that puts the financial burden more directly on non-riders who benefit from mass transit (e.g., businesses), would seem more likely but could be equally counterproductive in the long-term.
 In truth, each debt would eventually be borne by some individuals, through taxes, municipal bonds, etc. But each shift necessarily spread and increased the debt's impact.