Photos by Chris Faraone

March 18, 2016


Last week, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board—appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015 to run the transit authority—voted to hike fares by 9.3 percent. Claiming the move is absolutely necessary to stop the T’s perpetual budget crisis from worsening. Which is just pathetic. Because if ever there was a manufactured crisis, our state government’s refusal to properly fund its multiple mass transit systems is a prime example.

In 2000, the Commonwealth reversed its previous “backward funding” policy of simply paying any MBTA costs that fares didn’t cover at the end of each fiscal year. The move to so-called “forward funding” has been a disaster for mass transit in the Bay State ever since. The goal was to make the MBTA function like a for-profit company—which would somehow do more with a restricted budget allotted at the start of each fiscal year—and less like the indispensable public service that it is. The funding policy was later adapted for the other 15 regional transit agencies statewide. But in practice, as is often the case with such privatization moves, it has forced them all to struggle for survival. Leading to endless deficits anddoubling MBTA fares since its introduction.

There is a straightforward solution to this non-crisis. The state must go back to fully supporting the MBTA budget, must increase the mass transit budget statewide, and must raise taxes on the rich and corporations to cover any conceivable budget shortfalls for such an important public good.

But that simple, just and obvious solution isn’t “realistic” to neoliberal legislators, pundits and advocates that prefer to squirrel around the edges of the problem in ways that let the rich and corporations that they serve off the hook. While allowing critical mass transit systems to continue to deteriorate. And I count all five members of the Control Board among the “realists”—including union leader Brian Lang,whose yes vote on the fare hike was especially disappointing. Although he did successfully push some amendments that softened the blow for low-income riders.

The problem is not the lack of solid policy solutions. The problem facing MBTA riders in the Boston area and riders across the other regional transit agencies statewide is a lack of a big enough popular movement to push through such solutions. And therefore a lack of political power.

This is not to say there aren’t transit advocacy groups. There are over a dozen area organizations with solid track records in transit policy. Most are members of the Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition—which has made good progress toward the broad goal of properly funding public transit statewide through the passage of initiatives like the 2013 Transportation Finance Act. But even such gains are constantly under threat, and difficult to defend—let alone build upon—without lots of active public support. As we’ve seen with the state reneging on the portion of the act that “guaranteed” that MBTA fare hikes would never be more than 5 percent every two years going forward. So much for that, right?

What’s missing is basically a larger statewide version of the T Riders Union (TRU)—a project of T4MA member Alternatives for Community and Environment. Many of you will already be familiar with TRU because if there’s a media-savvy protest on transit issues in Boston, they’re probably at the center of it.

The problem is similar to the one I outlined last week when discussing the difficulty labor unions have turning their members out for public protest actions in light of the success of the BPS student walkout. Groups like TRU, and their allies in coalitions like T4MA, can turn out dozens to protest key government meetings as they did for the most recent MBTA Control Board meeting and the series of  public hearings on the fare hikes before that. They can occasionally turn out more people, hundreds, for rallies and marches. But they can’t turn out thousands, and tens of thousands, on transit issues.

Yet that’s what’s needed. If a political movement doesn’t have money like big business, then it needs lots of people protesting to have significant effect on the progress of key public debates.

Numbers like the 2,000-plus BPS students that turned out last week—in the right places at the right times—can change what’s politically “realistic” overnight. Smaller, largely symbolic protests generally cannot do that.

Also, smaller organizations and coalitions have a hard time mustering enough troops to deal with the everexpanding number of issues in a broad policy area like mass transit. For example, MBTA advocates don’t just have the fare hike to deal with. There’s also the late night bus debacle. And the unrelentingattacks on unionized transit workers. And the idea of privatizing more services by handing them off to companies like Uber and Lyft (because handing Commuter Rail service off to corporations has beenworking so very well). And the increasingly savage Green Line Extension fight. And that’s just Greater Boston. Start looking at the crises facing the regional transit agencies, and there are dozens of other issues that need more public attention.

That’s why it would be great to see TRU—and all the transit organizations already on the ground—get stronger. And it would be awesome to see groups like TRU sprouting up all over the state wherever they don’t currently exist. The more grassroots, the better. All linked together more tightly than they are today. In every neighborhood, town, and city served by the MBTA and the regional transit agencies. Because that’s what’s ultimately going to make it possible to win the simple, just solutions that will get mass transit out of hock in Massachusetts, and back on the global cutting edge.

The more people in the streets for transit justice, the better the outcome for Massachusetts. A pretty simple political equation.

Think that over. Then act. Before public transit is just a memory.

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

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.