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News :: Organizing : Social Welfare
MBTA Hikes Averted, But Taxes Raised in New State Budget
05 Aug 2013
Reposted from http://cradleoflibertynews.org

Bostonians dependent on public transit will be spared a second MBTA fare hike, just one year after a 23% fare increase. On Wednesday, July 24, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved a new budget, including safeguards, promoted by rider and worker groups, for public transit users.

After public protests against last year’s MBTA fare hikes, a variety of community organizations and unions have pressured politicians to protect the millions of riders who rely on public transportation. As Steve Annear reports in Boston Magazine, “(a)ccording to the language in the latest transportation reform proposal on Beacon Hill, (future fare) hikes… would be limited to just 5 percent—if needed—and could only come up every two years as a means of bringing in new revenue to pay off the T’s lingering debt problems.” This is great news for riders, most of whom are working class, suffer as their wages lag behind inflation, and often need public transit to get to work.
The $800 million transportation finance bill, however, almost didn’t made it into the budget. Governor Deval Patrick vetoed the bill in early July, demanding an additional three cents-per-gallon gas tax to cover the future revenue lost when the Mass. Pike tolls come down in 2017, leading to weeks of debate before both the Massachusetts House and Senate voted to override Patrick’s veto. The disagreement was “a big puffing of the chests contest,” Lee Matsueda, director of Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), the parent organization of the T Riders Union (TRU), told the Cradle of Liberty. The new budget does call for tax increases, though not Patrick’s additional three cent tax. According to Martine Powers of the Boston Globe, “the gas tax will increase by three cents, from 21 cents per gallon to 24 cents. The bill also adds a $1-per-pack charge on cigarettes and institutes a broad tax on computer software services.”

Last year’s hikes caused a general decrease in ridership, among other issues. According to Andy Metzger of WBUR, the number of riders “declined over the past 10 months, with ridership dropping more steeply so far in 2013…Since December 2012, ridership has been down a monthly average of 2.9 percent compared to the year prior.” The disabled suffered even greater hardships. According to the website of the state-wide coalition, Public Transit-Public Good (PTPG), MBTA’s “the Ride,” which provides transportation to eligible people who cannot use general public transportation all or some of the time, due to disability,” faced the sharpest hikes and cuts, resulting in a 22% drop in usage. Metzger wrote for the State House News Service, “The Patrick administration has yet to produce a study, due more than six months ago, on the impact of last year’s MBTA fare increases on seniors and people with disabilities.” Carolyn Villers, the Massachusetts Senior Action Council Executive Director, however, called the impact “severe.”

The July 2012 MBTA fare increase spurred protests from a variety of organizations. After the April announcement of the hike, Occupy the MBTA set up an encampment outside of the state house called “Camp Charlie” that remained for 10 days. On July 1st, 2012, the Boston Fare Strike (BFS)—a coalition of union, community, left, and anarchist organizations—launched a fare strike, training activists how to evade fares, and using mass direct action to occupy T-stations, giving thousands of riders free trips in July and August. The fare strike, or at least fare evasions, became so common that on July 23, 2012, the Transit Police launched “Operation Fare Game” to ambush evaders. According to a statement put out by Common Struggle/Lucha Común, in the first three hours of the operation “police raised $2,550 by ticketing 51 evaders, which a Boston Globe editorial…claims, is ‘about twice as many (evaders) as the agency had expected.’” A July 29, 2012 Metro article even reported MBTA employees holding the gates open and drivers letting people ride for free. By the end of August, however, BFS unravelled, official fare strike activities ceased, and the higher fares remained.

Public Transit-Public Good, a Massachusetts-wide coalition of riders , environmental organizations, and MBTA unions, has been fighting in the legislative arena. Their work has in part led to the positive aspects of the transportation funding bill of the new state budget. One member of the coalition, the T Riders Union, which started resisting fare increases in 2000, has focused on bringing the voices and opinions of riders directly to the MBTA planning office and the Cabot Garage to implement changes. Cradle of Liberty spoke with Lee Matsueda, ACE Political Director, about TRU’s recent activities. “This is where we use coalition work meaningfully, because our strength is not lobbying,” Matsueda said. TRU is recording video surveys at the Bowdoin Geneva Farmers Market in Dorchester, every Thursday from 2pm to 6pm, asking Bostonians about their experiences with and hopes for public transit. TRU is also conducting surveys along the #44 bus route, which departs from Jackson Square, passes through Dudley Square, and ends at Ruggles station. The #44, among other bus routes, has been unreliable and overcrowded in recent years. Matsueda continued, “service was being dropped a lot and people weren’t being picked up. We do outreach four to five days a week, so we see when the buses actually come.” TRU’s surveys and direct communication with the MBTA have helped reschedule the buses to avoid long waits and buses bunched close together.

After developing a working relationship with the MBTA, TRU is now suggesting, according to Matsueda, “ an equitable service and fare structure,” where the needs of communities, low-income communities specifically, that are dependent on public transit are taken into account in transit decisions. TRU has been inspired by efforts in King’s County, Washington (around Seattle) where activists helped implement an equitable structure. Unlike the MBTA, says Matsueda, who currently “cut service based on usage, just the numbers, not on whose being served or how they are being served,” TRU hopes to influence the MBTA to adopt the King’s County “Equity Framework.” TRU has had some early success: the MBTA’s new Chief Executive Officer and General Manager, Beverly A. Scott, Ph.D., agreed to meet with them. According to Matsueda, “the GM has made several announcements, and has spoken to us directly about how she wants to have an equitable roundtable to talk about equitable fare structures and more,” potentially as early as September.
While there have been no transit protests since the spring, the frustration of the MBTA’s customers, well over one million daily, stews. Riders’ anger at the cost and service of the MBTA is manifested in attacks on bus drivers. Bruce Gellerman of WBUR reports, “So far this year, there have been 50 attacks on drivers, compared to 33 this time last year.” Gellerman quotes MBTA Transit Police chief Joseph O’Connor, who “believes growing frustration with fare hikes and service cuts plays a role.” O’Connor said, “This is where…the assaults come from, where an operator is trying to collect the fare from someone and, for whatever reason, the person will assault the bus operator…” Some local media outlets with traditions of scapegoating union workers, such as the Boston Herald, frequently run articles blaming MBTA union members for high costs and bad service.

While fares, even without a new hike, are certainly high for working class people, TRU wants riders to know that MBTA workers are not the enemy. “We work with the workers in a statewide coalition (PTPG), we’re a worker and rider coalition. People have a right to a living wage and to work decent hours” Matsueda told the Cradle of Liberty. “We’re pro union. Of course there’s always need for improvement, but overall we don’t blame the drivers, we look at things systematically. We want drivers to be paid a living wage so they only need one job, so that they have the rest and the things they need to do their job well. They shouldn’t be penalized because they are part of a larger group who came together to organize and make and ask of what they need.”

This work is in the public domain