Can the MBTA Avert #mbtafail?

I love the MBTA.

Wait, no, let me start over.

I love public transit. I love living in a city that is so conducive to public transit — compact, diverse, populous. I love the big pile of bus schedules I carry in my bag, because while I can look up transit schedules via my Blackberry, it’s so much more fun to thumb through my big stack, pull out the schedule in question and study it, like a navigator charting my course. I love people-watching. I appreciate (though I may not always love) the inherent serendipity. Ages ago, I actually started a Facebook fan page for the MBTA.

I am also lucky. I love public transit, but I don’t necessarily need it. I live close to work, friends, grocery stores and Zipcars. If the bus drivers went on strike for a week, I would get by.

It is not me that I am worried about.

The MBTA is in crisis. It seems like the powers that be will whine and moan about how the MBTA’s real crisis is its budget shortfall, but the real crisis does not belong to the state. It belongs to the ridership, who consistently get a raw deal from the folks at the top — fare hikes and service cuts are always the first solution trumpeted whenever the going gets tough at the MBTA.

Sure, Gov. Deval Patrick is making noise about a top to bottom review of management at the MBTA, but I have my doubts about whether or not that really means anything. In the wake of the messy exit of Dan Grabauskas (who is still making noise himself), how can I help but think that this call is simply in response to the need to put a positive spin on the latest T drama? Why is such a review only a bright idea now, amid texting drivers (and the debatable response thereto), fatal accidents, chronic power issues and “signal delays,” embezzling employees, Charlie Card machines that inconsistently accept debit cards and other issues large and small, not the least of which is a $160 million FY10 budget shortfall and $2.2 billion in long-term debt? (Note: Nearly one-tenth of this year’s shortfall is the amount the T has lost each year to fare evaders. Charlie Cards help curb fare evaders, but it’s still a huge problem on the commuter rail.) Why has the MBTA always been allowed to procrastinate facing up to its big, hairy problems, and why has the rider always been the fall guy? Why will this time be any different?

In my mind, public transit is like a utility, like water or electricity. It is not an option; it is a requirement, an obligation of the municipal authority to provide to its population.

In turn, that is why I am not worried about me. I am worried about the folks I used to ride the first 89 bus of the day with to Sullivan Station, who were heading to less glamorous jobs than mine at the Boston Globe. I am worried about the hordes of people I see crowding at Sullivan around 9 or 10PM for a 104 or 109 bus back to Everett. I am worried about the domino effect of lack of evening commuter rail service on sporting and entertainment events in the city, both on the promoters and the individuals who will be unable to come in from out of town to attend. I am worried about kids who attend school across town and may either have to leave early and miss out on after-school activities or stay late, and maybe alone, until the next bus or a ride comes. I am worried about the environment, as commuters may hop back in their cars if inconvenienced by slashed schedules. I am worried that fare hikes or service cuts will not have any demonstrable benefit to the ridership and that even with the earnings/savings they would bring, the financial problems will not be allayed due to incompetence, mismanagement or all of the above.

As I was discussing some of these possibilities with a co-worker on Monday, the concern I’ve carried around since service cuts were first breached a few months ago began to heighten. Yes, I believe public transit should be provided to citizens just like any other utility. Which is why fare hikes without a plan for how they would be used to reduce debt AND improve service — and service cuts especially — would be a major disservice to the people of eastern Massachusetts. I understand that the agency has a tremendous amount of debt that hamstrings some of what they can do, but I’ve seen businesses manage debt in creative ways. I have to think it’s possible here. It can’t be an excuse anymore. I think the state needs to find a way to support public transit that treats it like a utility — after all, you wouldn’t limit the hours per day someone had access to hot water or electricity. If we’re serious about supporting the needs and aspirations of an urban population, and about shifting to a green way of life, we have to fundamentally change the way we look at public transit.

The MBTA is currently holding public workshops and hearings on the proposed fare and service changes, and I was fascinated on Monday by the Universal Hub live-tweeting of the first of these meetings. Will what gets said in these forums be heard? It’s hard to tell. But it’s important to keep talking. And you’ve got to hope that someone is listening — really listening. Because the real solution can’t be found in the rider’s pocket. That idea can’t cut it anymore.

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