Wednesday, June 07, 2006

In Your Ear, MBTA!

Last afternoon's whine and bitch fest against the T was energizing. With the exception of a few loonies, the handful of politicians and 40 or so commuters who testified were focused on their angles and united in opposition to fare increases.

Some candidates and legislators showed. Deval Patrick and Senator Jarrett Barrios made the strongest statements. Barrios even gave me a glimmer of hope for my call for a fare-free T.

The hearing was typically T bungled, which seemed only to add to the indignation of the attendants. As you might expect literally everyone scolded or accused the T officials. To their credit, speaker Dennis DiZoglio, deputy general manager for development, and moderator, Gerald Kelley, assistant general counsel, took it well and didn't rubify in anger or embarrassment.

Then again, the MBTA just got through a series of Q&As before starting these formal public hearings -- the chance for us to rant, two to three minutes at a time. Also, it must be like being a garbage collector; even after your afternoon shower, people hold their noses out of stereotyping. Woe to those who say, "I represent the MBTA."

In the what-were-the-thinking class, the hearing was in the teen reading area of the Copley library. That has a maximum occupancy of 150 ranters. I got there 20 minutes before the 4:30 p.m. start time, to find a fair number of seats. Yet, I was about 40th in the list of those who signed up to testify. Apparently cops were counting the bodies and shut the doors at 150, leaving a few dozen to fester outside. We can't know how many passersby wanted to come in but didn't bother.

The solution was typical T, gather your goodies and leave after speaking so that an excluded commuter could come in and take your spot.

So, here we have the only public hearing in Boston proper, home of the largest number of commuters that starts during the workday, unlike the evening suburban ones. There is the huge Rabb hall in the basement, but they squeezed us in like, well, like T riders.

Deval is Deval

The real and hopeful politicians got to speak first -- a metaphor for societal deference. Deval was first and sharp.

As in his comments in a recent press release, he pointed out that this is exactly the wrong time to raise fares. The duty of the MBTA should be to serve the public and attract new riders, not hope to make a little more by charging fewer riders higher fees. Higher gas prices and stagnant wages make this the ideal time to get more commuters on board.

He earned much applause with his closing suggestion. He urged the MBTA board to find an interim funding solution until January, when he (as the new governor) would sit down with them and find a solution. This was clearly a pro-Deval crowd.

Vaguely Related Vignette: I spoke with Patrick at the front of the room. He allegedly recognized the blog and endorsement, thanking me. It is a small pity that our culture largely precludes the male ritual handshake. It is a rare woman who wants or will return and accept a firm grip. So they miss that personality indicator. His is not a flabby minister's version, but he's confident and sincere. Lastly, he doesn't do the finger-grip thing that so many politician use to keep from hurting their hands in the process.

Barrios Bares It

The Senator representing near north in an erose district from Cambridge to Saugus, Barrios was spot on and the highlight of the afternoon.

He noted that the MBTA only allows public input in the process at the fare-increase stage. There was no discussion about other alternatives, just after the board decided they would seek the increases.

He had the history. The MBTA asked for a big fare increase three years ago to make nearly identical improvements -- automated fare system and so forth -- as it is using now to justify it. Barrios has not forgotten and seemed to feel betrayed.

In response to the T's biggest lamentation, he had a solution. The board and its literature it points out that as part of the forward funding (legislatively mandated self-sufficiency), it got $5.2 billion in debt. Service on that takes over 27% of the budget.

Barrios raised his voice and looked piercingly at the T reps. He said that not once had they come to the legislature asking for relief. He urged them to come to the General Court and discuss why the economic conditions do not allow meeting forward funding requirements.

The T board and its general manager Daniel Grabauskas tell everyone, and the media parrots, that they have to raise fares because they can't ask the legislature for different funding. Barrios said that was certainly not so and that it was their duty to do so.

Incidentally, several of us testifying later noted that this fare increase is in fact yet another hidden tax. The T board and legislature did not do their jobs right. So, they try to pass a fare increase, thus taxing commuters.

Barrios also noted that from its origins that the commuters using the T, including Commuter Rail, were not the only or even the main beneficiaries. The idea for such a compact, congested metro area was to reduce vehicular traffic. With this comes, of course, fewer cars, less pollution and noise, easier access to work and shopping, and a superior, New England lifestyle.

The businesses are key beneficiaries, in transporting workers, tourists and shoppers.

It is to everyone's benefit to attract more riders and fewer drivers. The MBTA has long been terrible at this, and in fact, has managed to repel riders with bad service and higher fares.

The Also Speakers

A couple of other politicians testified before we ravers took our turns.

Senator Patricia Jehlen (Medford and parts of Somerville, Woburn and Winchester) gave a tepid assault on higher fares. Unfortunately she repeated "I know you can't come and ask" the legislature. She also inferred that this fare increase would be a short-term solution that did not solve long-term issues. Joan of Arc she wasn't.

For comic relief, the Massachusetts Green Party gubernatorial candidate Grace Ross testified. She provided a rambling and vague soak-the-rich solution. It was something about big developers get huge tax incentives to come to Boston. So, we somehow need to get the T shortfall from them.

Kicks from Hicks: Commuter Rail folk have largely different concerns from townies. They'd get the largest dollar increases if this goes through. They'd like to have trains that arrive near on time, and not an hour late. The MetroWest Daily News covered the Framingham Q&A here. You can see comments on LeftinLowell's readers here.

More Ranting to Come: A bit more on the hearing here. Plus UniversalHub has other coverage here.

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