Beginning July 1, MBTA fares will be going up and service will be cut. To some, the increases may seem modest: a single CharlieCard ride on the Red, Orange, or Blue line will increase by 30 cents to $2.00. Bus rides will increase by 25 cents and student fares by 15. Monthly passes for commuter rail riders will increase between $38 and $64. Some routes will be discontinued; others will experience service cuts on weekends. All of this is to help close a projected MBTA deficit of $160 million in fiscal year 2013.
These fare increases will obviously hurt low and moderate income riders and especially those on fixed incomes. When the T held hearings on the increases earlier this month, scores of riders told of the hardship this will cause them.
The poor will suffer, but in reality the real pain these fare increases and service cuts are likely to inflict are not on the poor but on those who own cars and use them regularly to commute to work or do their daily errands. The irony is the biggest beneficiaries of the T are not its riders, but those who seldom use it.
The T’s greatest benefit is that it allows our roads and highways to be usable. As we all know, congestion is already a problem on central city streets, the Pike coming into Boston from the west, Route 2 from the inner suburbs, and Route 3 from the south. What we know from civil engineers is that a smooth flowing traffic pattern can completely break down by adding a few extra vehicles which suddenly overtax the system. Add a small number of drivers who desert the T because of higher price or less convenience and your daily commute could feel more like leaving TD North, Fenway Park, or Gillette stadium ten minutes after a game is over. Good luck.
Every time a T passenger decides to use the roads, other drivers pay a price in terms of time and gasoline usage. An increase in commuting time of just five minutes each way every work day translates into the equivalent of spending an extra 40 hour work week behind the wheel each year. At 55 miles per hour my car averages about 28 miles per gallon. In stop and go traffic, it averages little better than 15. The savings per year in gasoline for a five-day a week commuter who lives just 15 miles from work can exceed $900 per year (at $3.98/gal.). Moreover, the more cars there are on the road, the greater the chance of a fender-bender that brings traffic to a complete halt making your commute a nightmare and your gas bill even higher.
What is the implication of knowing the true beneficiaries of the T? The most important is that what we pay for the T and what we pay to drive is all out of whack. Prices are used to ration scarce goods. If something exists in massive abundance, its market price is usually low or zero. Think of air. If something is tremendously scarce, its price is usually very high. Think of diamonds.
What is scarce in Greater Boston are streets, roads, and highways. Yet the gasoline tax in the Commonwealth is lower than the national average with only twenty-one states having lower taxes. The per gallon tax rates in New York, Connecticut, California, and Hawaii are double or more than the 23.5 cent tax in the Bay State. New Englanders pay a higher gasoline tax not only in Connecticut, but in Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine. And the tax in Massachusetts is less than 4 cents higher than in New Hampshire – making for a difference in final gasoline prices of less than 1 percent.
Essentially, T users subsidize car drivers in a big way by staying off the roads. This suggests that the prices everyone pays for travel are completely wrong. T riders pay too much; drivers pay too little.
What should we be doing? In the short run, we should be raising the gasoline tax to subsidize the T. Something in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 cents a gallon would cover next year’s expected MBTA debt so that fares would not have to be raised or services cut. For that commuter who lives 15 miles from work, the added gasoline tax amounts to just under $12 a year – a fraction of what is saved in time and fuel charges when other commuters take the T. Raising the tax a bit more could help lower the cost of public transit throughout the state.
By the way, keeping people on the T not only saves drivers time and money, but makes that “free” air less polluted.
Over the long run, we should raise the tax even higher so that we could lower the cost of public transit, not raise it. Indeed, the optimal price for using the T might be close to zero like it already is in the downtown sections of Seattle and Portland, Chapel Hill and Baltimore.
As cars become more fuel efficient, effectively lowering the price to use our already crowded streets, roads, and highways, lowering the price of public transit will be even more critical. When it comes to protesting the fare hikes and service cuts on the T, drivers should be raising the greatest ruckus, not the poor. They have the most to lose.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
About the author
Barry Bluestone is the Stearns Trustee Professor of Political Economy, the founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and the Founding Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. More »