On Tuesday, nearly one hundred transit riders and workers from all over Massachusetts rallied in front of the State House in support of House Bill 4161, which, if passed, would provide short-term funding to the struggling MBTA and regional transit authorities (RTAs).
The T Riders Union (part of Alternatives for Community & Environment), Mass. Senior Action Council, and Green Justice Coalition sponsored the assembly, along with a coalition of other groups like local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) chapters. Ralliers then met with district reps, pushing them to support the bill and key amendments regarding fare increases and evasion penalties.
On Wednesday, the House passed H4161 (a vote of 130 to 25) in the wake of the spirited rally, providing $50 million to the MBTA and $7 million to RTAs using funds from the automobile inspection surplus and the unused snow removal budget.
However, the result was a “mixed bag,” according to TRU Director Lee Matsueda. Rally sponsors had a set of demands for H4161 that wasn’t completely met.
Two main concerns about the bill were remedying disproportionate fare hikes on seniors, students, and disabled riders and the bill’s fare evasion policy.
Back in April, the MBTA board voted in favor of Scenario Three, which included a 40 percent fare hike for student passes, a 76 percent increase for seniors, and a 100 percent increase on THE RIDE, Boston’s paratransit service for the disabled and elderly—all larger than the 20 to 25 percent increase on general bus and T fares. These increases are slated for July 1, but funding could ease the immediate burden. Plans to alleviate this burden became Amendment 26, which was rejected.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t see more leadership over the disproportionate fare increases for seniors, disabled riders, and the youth,” said Matsueda. “This is a huge blow to those communities.”
However, there were some victories for the rally sponsors.
“On a positive note, we did see some progress with a more reasonable policy on fare evasion,” said Matsueda.
The original evasion penalty consisted of a $75 fine, allowed 21 days for its payment, and escalated non-payment of fines to a criminal complaint. Rally sponsors argued this would disproportionately affect low-income communities, pushing instead a $25 fine, three months to pay, and the elimination of the criminal complaint aspect. Their ideas took the form of Amendment 21, which passed, including the elimination of the “criminal complaint” language.
“We also saw $7 million go to other RTAs,” said Matsueda, listing another positive. “Pioneer Valley [Transit Authority] hopefully will be prioritized.”
Many of these concerns were voiced at Tuesday’s rally. Michael Hollis of the Alliance to Develop Power told the crowd PVTA fare hikes “disproportionately affect my family, communities of color, the youth, and poor neighborhoods.”
Other speakers at the rally included Kiki Chaiton of MSAC; ATU Local 1037 president Gary Pikes; Denise Karuth of Governor Patrick’s Paratransit Transportation Commission; John Lee, president of Carmen’s Union Local 589; Mary Allen of Coalition for Social Justice; and TRU chairperson Rosa Mattias.
“Fix it, fund it, make it fair!” was the refrain of the day.
After the speeches, ralliers marched into the State House to meet with representatives, led to the handicap-accessible entrance by a few wheelchair-bound citizens, to push for bill support and certain amendments regarding fare evasion penalties and disproportionate fares for seniors, disabled riders, and students. Organizers directed people to their reps, blue MSAC shirts and orange CSJ shirts running in all directions.
Matsueda and others even filed into Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office. After a short wait, Joe Shannon met them on the DeLeo’s behalf, listening to their concerns and offering to “bring [their] voice to the Speaker.”
While Matsueda is disappointed with the overall result, the fight is far from over—the bill still has to go through the Senate and it’s only a short-term solution. The MBTA has a $159 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year alone, and is burdened with total $5.2 billion debt. More rallies and days of action are guaranteed, even if H4161 survives the Senate, until we reach effective long-term policies.
Pires suggested one possible long-term solution on Tuesday: RTAs can stop borrowing money from banks and adopt a forward funding program.
“RTAs borrow money every year, and owe 700,000 to one million dollars each year in interest payments. That money should go to the riders,” he said.
Right now, H4161 isn’t exactly what ralliers hoped it would be. But it’s going to take more than one bill to get out of this mess.