Image via Tom Wheaton

Last week, I was just as outraged as any other commuter when I heard about the MBTA fare increase and service cuts. Like I’ve said before, I like the T, but paying more for less service just didn’t sit well with me, and I wondered why both were necessary in the first place. I spent some time digging into the history of MBTA fare hikes and talking to transit advocates to put the agency’s current proposals in context.

Long story short? For the past 12 years, the MBTA has been battling a surmounting debt. This is nothing new, and this was inevitable.

It all began on July 1, 2000.

Prior to that date, the state of Massachusetts reimbursed the MBTA for all costs incurred that could not be paid off with revenue collected by the T from fares, advertisements and the like. However, on July 1, 2000, the MBTA’s finances were restructured under Forward Funding legislation, which granted the MBTA 20 percent of the state sales tax in exchange for over $3 billion in debt which was to be transferred from the state’s to the T’s books. As Brian Kane, a Budget & Policy Analyst on the MBTA Advisory Board writes, the T was “born broke.”

To combat its newly acquired multi-billion dollar debt, the MBTA increased fares by 25 percent in September 2000, the first time since 1991. Bus fares went up from 60 cents to 75 cents, subway tokens from 85 cents to $1, and commuter rail prices increased on a proportional basis.

Less than four years later, another increase. Critics warned of the negative impact a fare increase would have on ridership. Still, in January 2004, bus fares rose from 75 cents to 90 cents, subway from $1 to $1.25, and combined with higher rates on commuter rails and ferries, the price increases were forecasted to generate $25 million annually and close the gap between the MBTA’s revenue and its expenses.

Also in January 2004, the T Riders Oversight Committee was formed. Composed of advocacy groups, members of the public and MBTA members, TROC serves as an advisory body to the MBTA. While they have no authority to change anything, they provide the MBTA with recommendations to maintain and improve the T.

Then, on December 4, 2006, the CharlieCard was first available to the public, replacing the MBTA’s old token and turnstiles system. The last token was sold on December 6, 2006, and Fields Corner was the last station to be converted from tokens to CharlieCards on December 22, 2006.

Then, the most recent fare increase came on January 1, 2007. Subway prices rose from $1.25 to $2.00 or $1.70 with a CharlieCard, and bus rates went up from 90 cents to $1.50 or $1.25 with a CharlieCard. The increases were accompanied by fare restructuring including changes in bus to subway transfers as well as the elimination of free outbound service on the Green Line. The increases were forecasted to raise $70 million in annual revenue for the MBTA.

It didn’t help. Still in trouble, the MBTA board approved a plan to dip into its inner reserves on July 1, 2008 and take $20 million from its $55 million “rainy day fund” in lieu of a fare hike.

In July 2009, Governor Patrick approved a state sales tax increase from 5 percent to 6.25 percent in exchange for no Mass Turnpike toll increases. Just a few days later, a 20 percent MBTA fare increase with service cuts was outlined.

But riders were spared. In July 2011, the MBTA underwent some “financial engineering,” keeping fares steady by cutting employees to the lowest level in a decade, selling more advertisements and restructuring  cleaning contracts. “We are running out of rabbits out of the hat,’’ said Richard Davey, former MBTA general manager told the Boston Globe of those cuts. “I don’t see any more ears.’’

Over the next few months, though, no more magic was to be found.  And so, we find ourselves in the latest predicament: fare increases up to 43 percent and service cuts across the board. What can be done? Attend at least one of the 20 public meetings the MBTA is holding to listen to your opinion. And tune in to BostInno for an ongoing series of guest posts about transit in Massachusetts in connection with the MBTA fare increase and service cuts proposal.

For further reading on the MBTA debt crisis, check out these links: