Brookline Residents, Riders and Officials Talk T Proposals
The Selectmen's meeting on MBTA cuts drew a crowd with some issues with the T cuts, and a few ideas.
Brookline held its own MBTA meeting last night with a crowd of about 80 people signed in, a stenographer, a long table of legislators, town officials and T representatives, and one sing-along of "The MTA Song."
The Board of Selectmen hosted this meeting because the town was not included in a list of public meetings with the MBTA, as part of its public process explaining their proposed service cuts and budget hikes aimed at closing a $161 million budget deficit.
“We understand that the T faces a deficit, but this is a time for a real, long-term solution," Selectman Chair Betsy DeWitt began, referring to the two proposed scenarios as a "temporary solution" and a "punishment for riders.”
Speakers gave their feedback on the proposed service cuts, and made some suggestions for balancing the MBTA budget. Two high-level MBTA representatives were on hand, and a stenographer took notes on the entire proceeding. A transcript will be presented to the MBTA.
The two proposals from the MBTA both call for service cuts, and an increase in fares to cover the deficit.
"We do not have to implement scenario one or two as written, but we do have to do something." Charles Planck, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives said that while they are able to make shifts in how the T service is changed, they have a "statutory obligation" to balance the budget.
See the chart on "MBTA Cuts: What Do You Need to Know?" for a breakdown of the proposed scenarios.
Richard Leary, an MBTA Advisory Board member and former Brookline Town Administrator, explained the advisory board's third option, which calls for a 25% fare hike with no service cuts. This includes a number of ideas, such as selling the ferry service to MassPort, rolling Transit Police operations into the state police, and giving no pay raises to T staff in 2012.
He added that over 60 communities have already expressed enthusiasm and support for this option.
Said Leary, "we hope that what the T Advisory Board has put on the table will gather additional support, and will welcome any support from the Town of Brookline."
The biggest proposed service cuts are to the 51 and 60 bus routes, which link South Brookline to the larger MBTA system. Many of the speakers who were present last night are frequent commuters on, or users of these two routes, and asked and pleaded for the routes not to be cut. Others explained their importance:
"Public transport is integral to our multi-modal transportation. The 51 and 60 bus routes are the only public transportation routes that link the southern part of town--and its taxpayers, I might add, who pay to subsidize the T." Josh Safer, a member of the town's Transportation Board, added, "In addition to being unfair to select members of the community, the cuts are also bad policy."
He went on to add that the cuts could force some families to get second cars, putting more people back on the roads. Something he, and other speakers, described as the wrong direction to go.
Town Meeting member Tommy Vitolo, paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy, said "Ask not only what the MBTA can do for Brookline, but what can Brookline do for the MBTA?"
"I want to know from the MBTA, and have real dialogue about what Brookline can do that's in our purview. Not just interested in 'gimme, gimme, gimme.' I'm interested in what can we do," Vitolo explained.
One speaker added that he has started a Change.Org petition to save the 51 and 60 bus routes.
Fate Of The RIDE
The MBTA's RIDE provides paratransit service to members of the community that may otherwise have a difficult time getting around: for example, people with disabilities. For some, like a friend of Town Meeting Member Joe Ross, it is a vital service because, with migraine-related vertigo, she is unable to drive, and relies on the RIDE to arrive at medical appointments.
Planck commented that the RIDE is a federally mandated service.
The RIDE also operates at a loss for the MBTA. Town Meeting Member Lee Selwyn estimated that the RIDE costs the T roughly $50 per trip, and accounts for nearly half of the deficit. He stressed that he is not encouraging eliminating the service, but feels that it should be funded as part of a larger transit system--not just the MBTA's responsibility.
"The T shouldn’t be funding it," he said "and [in doing so] pitting people affected by service cuts against people who require paratransit."
Gas Tax Instead?
One suggestion repeated by a number of speakers was to increase the Massachusetts gas tax, and put that money toward the MBTA. The suggestion was met with some applause from the audience.
Planck explained, "Some of the issues that have been raised, like increasing the gas tax, have potential, but are beyond the control of the T."
State Rep. Frank Smizik commented that an issue he and his fellow legislators are running into is that some of their colleages are reluctant or refuse to consider new taxes as an option.
Said Smizik, "With revenues the way they are, it’s going to be very difficult."
Rumors Of Your Debt Greatly Exaggerated
Charles Planck also took some time during the meeting to set the record straight about a few things reported in the media.
The Herald reported on Feb. 14 that the MBTA hired 900 new employees in 2011. Planck explained that the company had also seen about 900 people leave for various reasons, including retirement. He said there was a net change of 25 new employees.
He added that the staff head count is about 900 people lower than it was 10 years ago, saying "We're trying to do as much as we can, with the people we have."
Another term he said he had heard a lot lately, "Big Dig debt." Planck explained that some projects during the Big Dig, some projects planned were connected to T expansion and to transit concerns, and that the MBTA has not been paying for parts of the project it had nothing to do with.
"The MBTA is not carrying or paying for any of the highway portions of the Big Dig project," Planck said.
Boston Magazine's editorial from yesterday explaining where this debt is coming from.
The Brookline Senior Center will also hold a meeting on Monday, March 5. at 1 p.m.
[Edit: Corrected Tommy Vitolo's quote to be a little more precise. 10:55 a.m.]