And other public transportation quagmires, from the MBTA to DC
Should the MBTA be free for all riders?
The answer depends on which mayoral candidate you ask.
Current City Councilor Michelle Wu, who announced her run before any of her current rivals, was the first candidate to suggest a fair-free transit system.
Fellow councilor Andrea Campbell pledges a more modest approach to free transit on her campaign site, focusing on free buses.
Kim Janey, who has the benefit of incumbency, announced the start of a pilot free bus program on MBTA route 28, which runs through Mattapan and Roxbury.
John Barros’ transportation plan focuses more on increasing the number of bus routes in the city to make the MBTA more accessible, without touching upon what should be done about the cost. When asked by a Boston.com reporter about his stance on free fares, he said he preferred reducing the cost of the MBTA for those most in need of access, rather than for everyone.
Annissa Essaibi George, the fourth city councilor in the race, has a transportation plan similar to Barros’ in that she also is not committing to a free MBTA, but would support cost reductions for some riders.
The Livable Streets Alliance, which is advocating for free buses, claims that about 70 cents of every dollar collected in fares goes back into fare collections.
Aside from the issue of a collections system that is barely profitable, LSA is pushing for a more accessible system, including building more bus shelters, more dedicated bus lanes to speed up the routes, and more at-level boarding of buses, which makes it physically easier to board.
Regardless of the ongoing need for improved service, the MBTA may continue to face service cuts as fewer and fewer workers are opting for public transit, according to a recent report from McKinsey and Co. (Ed. note: Not that we exactly trust McKinsey, who we recently reported earned millions in consulting fees from Mass for work that appears to have been used to rationalize mass evictions.)
The report predicts that with an increase in options to work from home and a reluctance to share breathing room with strangers, public transit ridership will decline. Based on current trends, the report predicts that half of the commuter rail ridership will be gone by 2025, making it less likely that Gov. Charlie Baker will be eager to restore the severe commuter rail service cuts he made during the height of the pandemic last year.
The high-priced COVID consultancy may have already yielded results as Baker used a line item veto in mid-July to kill a 3% budget increase for the state’s 15 regional transit authorities. The 15 RTAs, which includes bus, rail, and paratransit services, catered to about 23.3 million riders in 2020, according to an annual report from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
In explaining his veto, Baker argued that the RTAs had received enough federal grant money due to the pandemic that there was no need to give them any more money, despite inflation essentially rendering “level funding” as a budget cut.
As of this writing, Democrats in the legislature plan to override the veto.
Regardless of whether or not the extra $3.5 million makes it back into the RTAs’ budgets, Baker appears to be banking on public transit usage continuing to plummet beyond the pandemic. And needless to say, he doesn’t care too much about those who need these services.
Nationally, major public transit projects are slowly moving forward—at least on paper.
Last month, the Joe Biden administration reinstated an Obama-ere grant of just under $1 billion to support construction of a bullet train rail line that would link Los Angeles and San Francisco. The grant was a small portion of what could be an estimated $100 billion-plus project stretched over a few decades, but it covered an important stretch of rail line in the first phase of development.
Former president Donald Trump cancelled the grant in 2019, delaying what has already been a 13-year development process.
If completed, the line would be the largest high-speed transit line in the country. The entire proposed system, which is being developed in segments, will eventually span about 800 miles.
Naturally, a transit project of that scope continues to get bogged down by fights over the details.
Most recently, California’s state Democratic party has butted heads with the Biden administration over the terms of the reinstated grant. Although the grant was restored, it now includes language requiring the use of overhead electrical rail lines to power the train cars.
Stakeholding state legislatures, meanwhile, want to change the deal to include battery cell technology to power the trains.
The dispute underscores the dilemma of the nation’s massively complicated transportation needs, which will likely require decades of bipartisan cooperation if such projects are ever going to get fully-funded.