Boston, you should be pissed off right now.
Yesterday, Occupy Boston, ACE, T Rider’s Union, MassUniting, Amalgamated Transit Union, and other organizations joined together for a National Day of Action for Transportation. MBTA reps had their final board hearing and voted four-to-one in favor of passing Scenario Three, meaning a 25 percent fare hike on the T, service cuts to buses and the E-line, and a 100 percent increase on THE RIDE, among other measures. Later that evening, Occupy MBTA, a working group within Occupy Boston, declared a ten-day occupation of the front steps of the State House, which they dubbed Camp Charlie. This first part covers the hearing. Part two covers the day of action.
You could hear them before they even made it to the corner. The sound of drumming echoed throughout Park Plaza. The sound of marching feet amplified it. Then came the chanting.
“They say cutbacks,” shouted a man into a bullhorn, pulling up to the front of the crowd.
“We say fight back!” responded the crowd, led by a drummer.
The man on the bullhorn was David, of the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project (REEP). Topped with a black Sox hat, he led a small crowd of Youth Affordabili(T) Coalition members, Somerville Occupiers, and others to the Transportaion Building for the MBTA Board Public Hearing. David stayed outside with a few people to lead more chants, while the rest headed inside to the packed conference room upstairs.
It’s the first hearing since March 14, 2010 and the first and only hearing about Scenario Three, which despite 31 hearings of protest and anger, still proposes unpopular fare hikes and service cuts–including a 100 percent increase on THE RIDE, elimination of weekend service on the E-Line, and the elimination of several bus lines, most in low-income neighborhoods.
Dissatisfied with the first two proposals and anticipating the lackluster third, Occupy Boston called for a National Day of Action on April 4, the same day as the hearing and anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. Joining the call were organizations like ACE and it’s subgroup, the T Rider’s Union (TRU), REEP, MassUniting, and City Life/Vida Urbana, which have been fighting for transit rights long before Occupy’s call to action.
Handing out flyers at the door was Occupier Jay Jubilee, encouraging people to visit the Day of Action events following the hearing: a People’s Assembly at the State House, a rally outside the front steps of the House, and a candlelight vigil in remembrance of King.
“What we want to bring to the discussion today is the understanding that this is an attack,” says Jubilee, referring to how the hikes and cuts affect communities of color, the disabled, and the elderly the worst. “It’s not a matter of scarcity, the banks are profiting. The idea that there’s not enough money for transit is a farce.
“There’s billions for war, but public transportation is told to go looking.”
If it sounds like Jubilee is speaking about more than just Boston transit, he is.
“We want to support what’s going on, but broaden it. To look at what the social priorities are,” he says. “They’re set by the One Percent. We need to talk about fully funding the transportation at a Federal level, about redistributing wealth. We need to put the needs of all before the profits of a few.”
Blue shirts reading “Massachusetts Senior Action Council” dominate the crowd, as senior citizens came out to save their transit system, especially THE RIDE. And they’re ready to play rough if the Board doesn’t meet their demands.
“I’m thinking of organizing a boycott,” says SAC member Joanne Repoza.
“If we told people not to use the T, the buses – I think they would do it. They don’t give us a break so why should we give them one?”
Signs reading “Not on Our Backs” and “Support Mobility” are passed to those in attendance.
John Jenkins calls for order and starts the hearing.
Speakers include Representative Denise Garlick rallying to keep commuter rail service in Needham; Sarah Horsley of the Fenway Community Development Corporation, defending seniors’ transit rights; and Paul Regan of the MBTA advisory board, who scolds the board for not passing a placeholder budget earlier and ignoring advisory board requests.
One star of the hearing is Jonathan Gale of the Disability Law Center, who talks down to the board, particularly on their plan to take surplus funds from the Registry of Motor Vehicles originally designated to the Clean Air Act.
“You’re expecting [$51] million from the RMV, but what if you come up short with just 40?” asked Gale. “How pathetic is it to do the same thing that got you into this mess in the first place?”
Gale, a blind man, is referring to the forward funding program started by the state in 2000. The state decided the T would be funded with 20 percent of statewide sales tax revenue- not a bad deal considering the sales tax enjoyed steady growth in the preceding decade. Unfortunately, the sales tax has only increased one percent since 2000 and the T now records a shortfall of $375 million.
Josh Golim of Occupy Boston also makes noise, holding the Board accountable for their interest rate swaps with bailed out banks like JP Morgan Chase, UBS, and Deutsche. The banks benefit from the practice by paying variable interest rates to the MBTA while the T pays a higher fixed rate tot he banks.
“You lost $26 million this year to the banks,” he says.”And you’ll lose $287 million more over the next 18 [years]!”
Repoza also speaks to the board, saying that while Secretary Richard Davey called THE RIDE a “budget buster,” “we [seniors] call it our lifeline.”
“Everything is going up,” says Nayma Nazay’at of the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project. “We can’t control CVS. We can’t control Shaw’s. But we should be able to control our transportation.”
“I rise for people in nursing homes who only get $72.80 a month,” says Rob Park, an employee of the Center for Independent Living. ”Chances are you on the board will someday need THE RIDE. Hopefully not for a long time. And I sincerely hope it’s around for you, so you can go out, go to chruch, and get around.”
Park, himself disabled and wheelchair-bound, earns a standing ovation from most of the room.
After many angry citizens and several cheers, Jenkins decides to go to the vote.
“I cannot support a budget that burdens the poor with closing the gap,” says Director Ferdinand Alvaro to loud applause. He later calls the proposal a “disgrace,” earning himself more cheers.
“Unfortunately, I will vote in favor of this budget,” says Director Janice Loux, booed immediately.
“We showed you respect,” Jenkins tells the crowd.
Loux continues her speech, and though she sounds sorry for the people it will affect, she decides it’s time “we ask the legislature to fix their mistake.”
The crowd turns against Director Elizabeth Levin after she says “This is a transportation agency, not necessarily a social service agency.”
There’s more back and forth between the directors, the crowd and Senior Director Charles Planck, who has a hard time answering the directors’ questions about ridership impact, flipping back and forth through the pages of the proposal he’s presenting.
Jenskins has heard enough and decides to go to the vote.
“All in favor, say ‘I,’” says Jenkins.
Four hands shoot up. Alvaro’s stays down.
Jenkins hits his gavel – it’s over. Scenario Three has passed.
The crowd instantly boos. People get to their feet. A chant of “Shame on you” begins.
“They should be out on the street,” says one older man wearing a “We are the 99%” badge. “We gotta fight them. No more letting them go. There’s not a good one up there.”
“They’re out of touch with the people they’re supposed to represent,” says a young woman next to him.
“It was apathetic, honestly,” Gale says of the Board’s decision. “You know that song, ‘If I Only Had a Brain?’ Well, if they only had a brain. They automatically go to cuts? There’s no fallback, and that scares me.”
Gale doubts much will happen of the current budget in the legislature — no representative west of Boston would touch an MBTA bill unless it had statewide benefits or consequences. That said, a statewide bill incorporating the MBTA isn’t impossible.
“If you were to increase the gas tax slightly, even by two cents, that would be a statewide reason to close the gap. Another is a review board to determine what [in the state] gets funded first, what bridges, or transit systems.”
For now, it looks like the people will have to echo what Khalida Smalls of ACE told the Board earlier.
“Regardless of which way you vote,” she said, “this fight is not over.”