If there is anything that I truly need, can’t live without, and have a love-hate relationship with, it’s the MBTA. Love, because it is the most relaxing way for me to get around Boston. Hate, because most of time, its service remains below average while fares increase every two years.
On a recent weekday I got on the Orange Line at Oak Grove, as I often do. I was reading articles on my phone and suddenly smelled cigarette smoke. I looked up and saw a middle-aged man puffing away. Several passengers tried to stop him, but he turned a deaf ear. After a few minutes, when he heard the conductor’s voice — “No smoking on the train” — he put the cigarette out, pretending nothing had happened. During the rest of trip, the train was filled with the unpleasant smell. I looked at the floor, which was littered with empty water bottles, used sanitary napkins, cracker shards, and now — a cigarette butt.
Certainly the execrable habit of smoking and dropping trash in public areas is irritating. But it seems to me that the T is always dirty. Sometimes I wonder: Do those trains —especially on the Orange Line — ever get cleaned? In fact, “dirty” is just one of the complaints people have about the T. With only two-star reviews from Yelp, a website where users can publish reviews about local businesses, users not only complained of torn seats and disgusting bathrooms but also delayed trains and unhelpful employees.
With such bad service, why is the MBTA’s price likely to rise again? Recently, MBTA officials revealed that they are expecting a $111 million budget deficit in fiscal 2019. Gov. Charlie Baker said the MBTA “should” be discussing a fare increase to help close the gap. I understand that a big projected budget gap needs to be filled, but is raising the fares really a long-term solution? Does increasing the fares mean better service?
Let’s look at what has happened in the past.
In 2012, 2014, and 2016, the MBTA raised fares by 23, 10, and 9.3 percent. Over those four years, the cost of a single subway ride went up from $1.70 to $2.25. The monthly LinkPass, which offers unlimited subway and bus rides, increased from $59 to $84.50. After the most recent rise in 2016, state lawmakers declared that the agency can only impose 7 percent increases every two years.
What bothers me is that fare increases are often followed by service cuts. In 2012, the MBTA cut $15 million in services, including eliminating weekend service on the Kingston-Plymouth, Needham, and Greenbush lines. In 2016, the MBTA cut late-night train service on the weekend, which disproportionately affected poor and minority riders. When fare increases and service cuts won’t work, the next two things the MBTA considers are laying off workers and limiting the spending on janitorial services, which also could result in workers’ losing their jobs and hurting the quality of the cleaning services. The harsh cuts left workers worried about their futures. In 2014 and 2016, cleaning and janitorial employees protested the Baker administration’s decision to limit spending on cleaning contracts, stating their concerns about the cleanness of the transit station and losing their jobs.
As an everyday T rider, I understand that, when facing a big budget deficit, the MBTA needs to raise fares to close the gap. But the governor and legislative leaders should acknowledge that raising fares is not a long-term solution — it places the burden on the poor, thus eliminating riders. Yet when raising fares is unavoidable, please at least ensure that our services are preserved.
Recently, Gov. Baker was asked by The Boston Globe whether he would accept the challenge of riding the T for five straight days. Baker said no. “I’m not a point-to-point person,” he said. “If I had a more traditional commute, it would be easier to do that.”
Unlike Gov. Baker, I enjoy public transportation. I enjoy spending time on the train listening to podcasts and seeing different people. It allows me to exercise more. Plus, most the MBTA employees I’ve met are nice and friendly. Thus taking the T will remain part of my daily routine.
Thanks for all the good times, MBTA. I hope to see you looking better.
Wen Lei is a graduate student in POV: The Art and Craft of Opinion Journalism, a class taught by WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy at Northeastern University.