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Guest Column: MBTA Cuts Would Sever Boston’s Main Artery

An SL5 bus stops in a new dedicated bus lane on Washington Street near the Chinatown T station. Courtesy of the MTBA.

Greater Boston is home to world renowned educational institutions, cutting-edge medical facilities and highly successful businesses. From Cambridge to Dorchester to the suburbs beyond Route 128, the region is a hub of culture and innovation that helps to drive the Commonwealth and the country forward.

Although Boston has been a national leader on many fronts, its transportation system - the vital artery that carries the city's lifeblood - has lagged woefully behind. Over the past several decades, rising air pollution coupled with inadequate and inequitable public transportation, crumbling roads and increased congestion have slowly crippled Boston’s once-thriving heartbeat.

The COVID-19 crisis has further exacerbated Boston’s transportation woes. The pandemic has resulted in drastically reduced ridership and fare revenue, as well as increased costs due to changes in safety protocols.

While the federal government has issued some emergency funding to help cover COVID-related costs, it is a one-time allocation, which has already been budgeted or spent. Now, the MBTA is facing a $300 to $600 million deficit.

In the face of this looming financial crisis, the MBTA is planning wide-ranging service cuts on all modes of transportation that would hobble the entire Massachusetts transit system. These cuts, which could be finalized as soon as Dec. 7, 2020 would further choke off much-needed blood flow to the city, which is engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the virus. We can not allow this to happen.

As leading health experts predict, with guarded optimism, the emergence of a COVID-19 vaccine within 6 to 12 months, it would be self-defeating to dismantle the region’s public transportation system.

This would severely harm essential workers and transit-dependent Bay Staters in under-resourced communities during the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Furthermore, because the T is already struggling with worker shortages and deferred maintenance, some of these cuts would permanently damage the agency's – and the region's – ability to recover from the pandemic.

“Once implemented, it could take months to years to re-add service depending on mode, scale of reductions, actions taken, and financial certainty,” a recent presentation released by the MBTA said, as “changes will be permanent.”

We need to imagine ourselves 18 months in the future under the MBTA’s proposed service cuts. At that time, life will likely take on a new normal where many more Massachusetts residents are freely moving throughout the state.

How will a museum-loving family from Framingham get to Boston on a beautiful Sunday when there is no weekend commuter rail service? What will the overnight hospital maintenance worker living in Chelsea do when the nearest station on their scheduled bus line is closed for the night? How will the construction worker living in Hingham get to their job downtown if the ferry service they’ve been enjoying for years is permanently cancelled?

If we implement these cuts, our transit system will be hobbled long after the rest of the Commonwealth recovers from the pandemic.

There are other ways to address the budget crisis and avoid crippling the region’s transportation system. Increasing a statewide gas tax, closing corporate loopholes, bolstering TNC fees, considering bonds and borrowing or reconsidering other taxes are all viable options. We must think creatively right now to make a long-term investment in the future of Massachusetts transit.

We want the Bay State to come back stronger than it was. As we address the looming budget crisis, we must support -- not cripple -- the Commonwealth’s ability to thrive. As we plan a COVID-19 recovery, let’s ensure we invest in the T and build a metro Boston that serves us all more equitably and sustainably than before.

John Stout, the current Transportation Advocate for MASSPIRG, is working to transform the Bay State's transportation network by increasing public transit ridership and improving walking and biking infrastructures so the easiest, cheapest and most enjoyable ways to get around are also the cleanest and healthiest. Originally from the hippie loving town of Berkeley, CA, John currently resides in Jamaica Plain in Boston, where he can be found exploring the city’s nooks, crannies and coastlines by bike. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnStoutJHS.

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