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November 30, 2015


As the latest round of the ongoing neoliberal campaign to shift the cost of mass transit in Massachusetts from state government to individual riders gets in gear—a necessary step along the road to privatizing the MBTA—regular readers will be unsurprised to find that I am in agreement with progressive transportation advocates like Alternatives for Community and Environment that are against T fare hikesof any kind next year.

However, there is a related fare reform proposal being floated that also needs to be vigorously opposed early in the game: The idea of means testing T riders and giving poor people lower fares.

Supporters of the proposal include Monica Tibbits-Nutt and Brian Lang—two members of the powerful new MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board that is tasked with bringing public transit costs to heel in the Bay State at a time when the T’s annual operating deficit is expected to rise from a projected $170 million this year to $240 million next year to $427 million by 2020. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has also voiced support for the idea.

I don’t doubt that Lang (president of Boston’s hotel and food service union UNITE HERE Local 26), Tibbits-Nutt (executive director of the 128 Business Council), and Pollack (former associate director for research at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University and onetime Conservation Law Foundation staffer) are well-meaning in their concern for low-income riders in the face of constant pressure for regular fare hikes.

But I think their push will create a two-tier system that undercuts the core principle of public services: universality. As the tremendous success of the Social Security program informs us, society as a whole does better when public services like mass transit contribute to the common good. If we start giving a better deal to one relatively powerless group like poor riders, then other more entitled groups like middle class riders will stop seeing support for the T as being in their best interest. Driving another nail in the coffin of the idea of public transportation as a human right and a critical public service when the governor’s seat is held by a Pioneer Institute privatizer like Charlie Baker and when a Democratic legislature has just suspended the anti-privatization Pacheco law for the T for the next three years.

Also, such a weak policy initiative can be undone as easily as it is enacted. Poor riders can have their discount taken away in a political heartbeat. And that’s the danger of mass transit advocates inside and outside government trying to forestall a necessary battle in the public interest with piecemeal reform. That’s the danger of hewing solely to politics of the “possible”—the politics of least resistance—and of buying into Maggie Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal capitalist ideology. To forgetting about democracy. To absolving corporations and the rich of their responsibility to pay taxes, and privatizing government. Thus killing off public services while guaranteeing ever greater profits for the one percent.

Last spring, the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung predictably tried to put a positive spin on the means tested fare discount plan by inferring that it is somehow akin to progressive taxation—the opposite of Thatcher’s vision—where the poor pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes and the wealthy pay a higher percentage. But while declaring that the single fare system is a regressive tax on the poor, she tripped lightly past the fact that if we had a genuinely progressive income tax in Massachusetts we’d not only have plenty of money to properly fund the T without regular fare hikes, but would also be able to significantly expand the system. And get all those suburban SUV cowboys and cowgirls on a public bus or train once in awhile—which would be good for both the environment and for reminding conservative suburbanites that they live in a democratic society. Not a Randian individualist dystopia.

The constitutional amendment campaign by the labor-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition would go part way towards that goal if enacted by raising state income tax on just the rich and by dedicating some of the funds to mass transit. Which is helpful. But, absent a public groundswell an order of magnitude larger than the Occupy movement, we’ll apparently have to wait for a progressive coalition with the political will to fight for a full progressive taxation amendment that will really solve the problem of properly funding public services like the MBTA.

Meanwhile, former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi (a sometimes controversial figure himself) amply demonstrates what could be done to save the T without major tax reforms in a recent article in Commonwealth—starting with forcing state government to take back the billions in “legacy” and Big Dig debt it dumped on the T years back, shifting up to 10 percent of highway dollars to mass transit each year for five years, and committing the billions in freed-up revenue toward desperately needed system maintenance.

Aloisi points out that the highest possible fare hikes under the law passed in 2013 that limits T fare hikes to 5 percent every two years would only result in an additional $20-23 million in new annual revenue when its operating deficit is rising and the bill for deferred maintenance—that will allow the system to reach a “state of good repair”—is $7 billion (and rising). And that even the 10 percent fare hike that some legislators insist the 2013 law allows would only bring in around $40 million in new annual revenue. So fare hikes are only going to alienate more people from the T in an era when it needs strong public support more than ever.

There’s lots more political drama to come over the next few months before anything is set in stone, but my general admonition to transportation activists would be to echo what a mentor of mine, longtime labor activist Tim Costello, told me over and over again in situations like this years before he passed away: “Don’t bargain against yourselves!”

In other words, mass transit advocates should not start the current fight with a weak political proposal like trying to give low-income T riders lower fares and exposing a lot of other better off—but still economically vulnerable—riders to a stiff hike. They should fight to defend and expand public transportation on democratic principle.

If it becomes necessary to make political accommodations along the way during the hard grassroots fight it will take to make that goal a political reality, then at least public transit advocates will be bargaining from a position of strength … and will end up winning more than they started with.

Rather than less.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.