Buried in the complex web of the FY17 state budget was a glimmer of good news for the innovation economy in Massachusetts: new, clear limits on how frequently and by how much MBTA fares can be raised. Allow me to explain …
Take a stroll around some of the hotbeds of innovation in Greater Boston – Kendall, the Seaport, Dudley, to name a few – and you’ll notice a few trends in the startup scene. Apple watches. References to AI. Millennials. Of the many studies that have been done about the loves and hates of millennials, one in particular explains why virtually all of these innovation hubs are well-served by public transportation (though admit it, we wish the Seaport were better served): a 2015 Urban Land Institute and MassINC poll found that 78 percent of respondents said that it was “very important” for their workplace to be near public transit. When the survey asked millennials about commutes, the common response was that they didn’t use their car to get to school or to the office. Millennials are at the center of the innovation boom that is growing the Massachusetts economy, and they want to take the T.
Earlier this year, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board adopted a 9.3 percent fare increase for T riders. It took effect on Friday, July 1. As desperately as the T needs new revenue, this infusion of funds comes at a serious cost. While this fare increase will raise nearly $46 million in revenue for the MBTA, the T’s own analysis shows it will result in a loss of 5.9 million rides a year. Meanwhile, $46 million won’t put a dent in the MBTA’s $8 billion of debt, and the hike comes with no promise of significant service improvements.
To state the obvious, those 5.9 million rides are taken by people. Undoubtedly, many of them are our colleagues in innovation, for whom this is the last straw, causing them to give up on the T in favor of some other mode of transportation. Worse, it is what drives them to pursue their new endeavors elsewhere, in an area with more affordable and reliable public transit. Of course, it isn’t just innovation workers counting on the T to carry them around the city. A portion of the 5.9 million rides lost will, perversely, come from some of the most vulnerable among us, dependent on the T not to help them birth the next unicorn, but rather to access a job that allows them to put food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads, or to reach a classroom that holds the promise of brighter days ahead. At best, some of these 5.9 million rides would be converted to driving or carpooling trips – leaving all of us with the unintended consequence of more traffic congestion and pollution. The more painful option to consider is that these rides aren’t recreated in other modes because the people behind them can’t afford alternate means of transit, and may lose jobs, stop pursuing startup ideas, leave school, or find their childcare arrangements in jeopardy.
When the state pushes people off public transportation, it stunts access to opportunity, and economic growth is derailed. There’s a reason that Kendall Square is the world’s leading innovation hub and an important source of revenue for the state: density and access. Employers like Biogen and Google would not be able to count on their employees walking through the door each day without the T. 55 percent of all Kendall Square workers rely on some form of public transportation to get to the office (another 6 percent walk or bike). As the T becomes less affordable for our students and start-ups, but no more reliable, we’re doing a major disservice to a key component of the Commonwealth’s economic success.
Despite the vital connection between public transit and private sector growth, this haphazard approach to fare management has been the norm at the MBTA. T fares were raised in 2000, 2004, and 2007. Then again in 2012 – by 23 percent – and once more in 2014 by another 5 percent. Each time riders were told that the fare increases would yield improved and more reliable service. Those results have yet to pull into the station. In 2013 the legislature tried to make fares more predictable for riders by placing limits on the frequency and amount of future increases, but the state interpreted the intent of those legislative caps quite broadly, and fares have been upped once again. Hopefully, with this latest budget provision, the days of steep and sporadic cost increases are behind us.
Millennials are sending the state a not-so-subtle message about the importance of public transportation to the innovators among us. We’d be fools not to listen. Let’s reign in the amount and frequency of MBTA fare hikes, and ensure the T is an asset, not a hindrance, to the economic vitality of our state and the people who call it home.
C.A. Webb is a Partner and Co-Founder at _Underscore.VC, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Business Leadership.