Proposed MBTA cuts will solve deficit issue
VOICE OF REASON
Published: Monday, February 13, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 03:02
Early last month, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority proposed a reduction in operating hours, a closing of several bus routes and modest fare increases in order to close a projected $161 million operating deficit and pay down a $5.2 billion debt. These proposals have, understandably, produced a tremendous amount of opposition from many groups, including the many Boston-area university students who rely on the MBTA's services. I don't have a car on campus. I rely on the T and the commuter rail to get to and from Brandeis. Nonetheless, I think that these proposed cuts and fare hikes are a necessary and fundamentally justifiable component of any plan to reduce the MBTA's massive budget shortfall.
The first argument against the cuts is simply that there are effective ways to address the MBTA's budget problems without so seriously inconveniencing commuters. I am, admittedly, not privy to the contents of the Massachusetts budget, but I haven't yet heard any of these better ideas. Some, including Boston mayor Thomas Menino, have come out in favor of a gas tax hike, or some other levy to raise government revenues. However, all this proposal does is shift the burden to the state's drivers rather than commuters. The money is still being raised on the backs of citizens, and, in this case, citizens who don't primarily benefit from the public transportation they will be further subsidizing.
Others, including many within the Occupy Boston movement, have proposed having the banks simply cancel the T's debt. Again, I do not know the state of the relevant lending banks' finances, but there are no free lunches in real life. If the loans were to be forgiven, someone, presumably the banks and their shareholders, would simply have to bear the debt. As the past few years have taught us, there are inherent risks in loading banks up with a great deal of debt, and I worry about the consequences of doing so. Furthermore, debt forgiveness sends a message that governments and citizens can live beyond their means with little to no consequence. Citizens paying the price for poor government decision-making must demand better.
Finally, this "solution" also fails to address the fact that the MBTA does not only need funds to pay off debt, put that its operating budget is running deficits. Deeper changes need to be made to solve the MBTA's budget problems.
Another, and I think far sillier, argument against these proposed cuts is that, as Mayor Menino argued, "Public transportation should be a public right." I tend to think that that it is rather specious to claim that any government service is a "right," because such a right inherently requires "Robin-Hooding" money from one group of citizens and redistributing it among other citizens. I certainly believe government is well within its rights to raise revenue from its citizenry to provide public goods, but to call such goods "rights" greatly stretches the meaning of the term. However, what is far more pernicious is that this argument encourages selfish, interest group politics at the expense of holistic and pragmatic policy making. Unfortunately, much of the discussion revolving around these proposed cuts focuses on groups that feel entitled to the MBTA's services because it makes life easier for them.
Just look at the discussion of this issue on our own campus. I have heard many students argue that eliminating commuter rail services on weekends is a bad idea, because that is when college students tend to go out. However, while students tend to use the rail on weekends in order to go out and play, most people use it on weekdays to get to and from work. Eliminating weekend services is a way of cutting costs while minimizing the effect of such cuts on the majority of people who use the commuter rail. Yet many college kids don't see the issue this way, because they approach the whole p roblem from the perspective of how the policy change will effect them. The great irony of this whole argument is that most of us don't even pay taxes to the state of Massachusetts. Unfortunately, many of the arguments made against the cuts exhibit a narrow-mindedness and a lack of civic consciousness. From arguing that banks should simply forgive the MBTA's debt to approaching the issue from a myopic, interest group-based standpoint, too many who oppose these cuts are encouraging people to put their own interests and the interests of the groups before the public good. It bespeaks a selfish sense of entitlement that a student body claiming to be concerned with social justice and the welfare of the world at large ought to eschew.