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Brownsberger: MBTA Service Cuts Just Wrong

The state senator will be leading a public meeting tonight, Thursday, March 15 at Belmont Town Hall.

Brownsberger: MBTA Service Cuts Just Wrong

My views about the MBTA’s  proposed service cuts and fare increases have been evolving. Over the past two months, I have spent hours listening to riders testify in hearings conducted by the MBTA.  In addition, I have heard directly from and responded to roughly 200 constituents expressing concerns.  The experience has adjusted my thinking about the prospect of service cuts.
Initially, I saw the MBTA’s public process as just one more example of the usual painful budget process we have been going through at the federal, state and local level during the last few years of financial pressure: We determine that demands exceed resources. We inform the public. We look for resources.  We prioritize demands based on public input. We close the gap with some painful decisions. Seeing the process in that light, my goal as Senator was to prevent cuts that affect my district (by speaking out to assure that my district’s needs were appreciated).

As I have listened to riders, it has sunk in to me that cutting transportation service is qualitatively different from many other kinds of budget cuts. A cut in bus service may be tantamount to an eviction from housing for many riders who cannot drive — it may force a relocation. And for persons with disabilities, a relocation can be overwhelmingly difficult.

Just as many people have built their lives around MBTA service, many businesses count on service to bring their customers or employees to congested locations. They have made investments in congested areas in reliance on the presence of service.

Given the lives and investments that have been built around MBTA service patterns, it seems irresponsible to propose adjusting MBTA service with the relatively short notice that the budget process affords. The short run budget process allows little systematic exploration of alternatives. And when decisions about route eliminations are finalized, people and businesses may have only weeks to develop alternative plans.

This year’s budget crisis was entirely expected — the MBTA could have been holding the same hearings (or more carefully targeted hearings) one or two years ago. A sounder planning process would look further ahead, identify routes that are uneconomical, conduct hearings targeted on those specific routes, consider alternative service approaches, and if route eliminations truly are necessary and advisable, give people twelve to eighteen months notice of the expected changes.

I now believe that my role as senator is, in addition to assuring that the service needs of my district are appreciated, to generally oppose any service cuts in Fiscal 2013. Eliminating routes in the annual budget cycle is just the wrong way to administer change.

The hardening of my position against service cuts does not make me more eager to see swift legislative intervention in the process. I think that Gov. Patrick and legislative leaders have been entirely right to force the T to go through its own thought process and solve the problems that it faces on its own to the greatest degree possible.

It is all too easy to blame the MBTA’s problems on the debt and forward funding structure put in place by my predecessors in the legislature a decade ago. In fact, over the past decade, MBTA managers have made innumerable decisions about employee compensation, benefits, service levels and other matters that have shaped the financial condition of the system. The goal of forward funding was to make management accountable for long term planning. If we are too quick to bail out the system when it comes forth with problems, we undermine the accountability of management.

In no way do I mean to suggest that MBTA management has been weak or ineffective. I am not in a position to make that judgment. I mean simply that management should be held accountable to solve its own problems if at all possible.

Once the MBTA board has completed its budgeting process, I will absolutely support a funding infusion if necessary to prevent service cuts. But it is important to note that a funding infusion may not be politically possible — legislators representing communities that use the MBTA lightly or not at all will not necessarily support a bail out.

In the long run, I remain as convinced as ever that we need to put in place better funding for our transportation system, including the MBTA, regional transit authorities and roads. That need has been evident for years. Hopefully, we will be able to step up to meet it in the next legislative session.

Will Brownsberger

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