A Few Words on the MBTA Crisis
There is no real crisis at the MBTA. There is, however, a major problem with the way public transportation is funded in Massachusetts. And particularly with the way the MBTA is funded. As long as the existing funding system remains in place, the public will be left with the current two bad choices on offer from MBTA leadership - either accept a big fare increase and some bad cuts to service, or accept a slightly less big fare increase and even worse cuts to service. Neither of which is acceptable or necessary. But to understand why, let's take a closer look at MBTA funding.
Prior to the year 2000, the MBTA was funded the way most public transportation agencies are funded - any money not pulled in via fares annually was picked up by the state legislature with federal funding for specific projects. But in 2000, under Republican Governor Paul Cellucci - and a completely Democratic Party controlled legislature - a new system was implemented called "Forward Funding." This plan, predicated on the idea of a then annually increasing sales tax revenue, said that 1% out of the 5% (translating to one penny on the five cents of tax on every dollar in sales) then collected in sales tax in the Commonwealth would be dedicated to the MBTA. A minimum appropriation was guaranteed. And that was that.
This very regressive plan was then made even more regressive by the state's dumping of $3.8 billion in debt from the Big Dig on the MBTA shortly after inaugurating the new funding system. Meaning that the state's main urban population center was being made to pay for bad debt from a famously bad (and badly run) project that primarily benefitted bad transportation behavior by SUV-driving suburbanites (and, of course, corrupt contractors like Bechtel). That is, being allowed to continue drive around in massively inefficient and environmentally damaging individual vehicles instead of massively expanding public transportation statewide - and discouraging car ownership in a way proper for a planet facing the end of oil and the destruction of the environment by burning said oil in the form of gas and diesel engines.
Although the state sales tax was raised to 6.25% in 2009, the same penny of the now 6.25 cents in tax collected on every dollar of sales in Massachusetts continued to be dedicated to funding the MBTA. Which was unfortunate since the expected sales tax revenue growth that the Forward Funding plan was predicated on never materialized in the down economy of the 2000s. Without even increasing the amount of sales tax revenue dedicated to the MBTA in that year, an opportunity was missed.
But even with slightly increased revenue, the system would have remained mired in debt. Which a socialist like me would have much less of a problem with than the average capitalist were it not for the fact that we live in a capitalist economic system ... where all debt - even public debt that actually represents the maintenance of a public good like public transportation (and is therefore an asset) - is considered bad.
In our current system, debt service to the banks that hold the kind of bonds issued by governments like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is always held to be more important than the public good.
So rather than questioning the whole banking system and capitalism at its core, would-be reformers are expected to meet the system on its own ground in matters relating to debt and propose ways to pay down the debt ... rather than pushing the government in question to simply cancel the debt and tell the private banks "tough luck". Or at least creating a State Bank and transferring the debt to that public entity on much better terms, i.e., buying the debt from the private banks that currently hold it at good terms mandated by legislation ... allowing for the private banks to be made whole in a non-usurious fashion and for the debt to be restructured on far better terms in the public interest.
Since neither of those two solutions are currently in the offing, and would require major political change driven by a new progressive force like the Occupy movement to even be considered (hint hint), the responsible left-wing commentator is not left with much to work with.
Which leaves one obvious solution. Go back to the old system, and let the legislature directly fund the MBTA again. Then transfer the Big Dig debt back to the state. And force politicians to deal directly with their flawed transportation priorities.
Of course even this minimal reform will still require major pressure on the legislature from below. But that is both necessary and good practice for one day winning the more significant reforms mentioned above.
The question then becomes: who will lead the fight for these reforms? Traditional specialist non-profit organizations like Alternatives for Community and Environment and the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership? Or the new, potentially larger, Occupy movement? Or both forces working together? Or some other force not yet extant?
And if it is to be both existing forces working together - as seems to be happening with the Occupy the T campaign - which force will dominate the policy agenda? The traditional non-profits? Or Occupy?
And what will that mean in either case?
That's not clear. Perhaps participants from the relevant organizations and movements can comment here or write some op-eds in our Open Media Boston Opinion section and let us know what they're proposing? With the understanding that there is significant and growing overlap between Occupy and other social forces; so we're not necessarily talking about as much as a difference of opinion as might seem to be the case at first glance. And I'd say that contributors to this discussion should also weigh in on the possibility of federal funding for the MBTA. After all, as with so many other social programs, the general public would much rather see federal money going to expanding public transportation than to the Pentagon, the multinationals, the banks and the wealthy.
Look forward to any opinions on these matters that knowledgable viewers wish to field.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston