Don’t break up the T, expand it statewide

Treat public transit like a utility, paid for with property taxes

FOR AT LEAST seven years, state Rep. William Straus has been shopping the idea that we should abolish the MBTA. Rep. Straus, who is chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, told CommonWealth magazine (May 18, 2015) that “we should be talking about a third way: getting rid of the MBTA as a stand-alone authority.”

Great idea. Except that Straus launched a trial balloon in CommonWealth magazine (October 30, 2022) that is drifting in the wrong direction. He floated the idea of separating bus and subway from the rest of the MBTA services, when a unified, statewide approach is necessary.

The MBTA was never designed to be an efficient public transit agency. It was born in crisis, first when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rescued the failing Boston Elevated Railway Company in 1947. The MTA was folded into an expanded Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in 1964 in order to rescue failing commuter rail service.

Cities and towns had the option to join or leave the MBTA district, and the T adjusted service to align to its boundaries. Originally, the MBTA ran bus service from Boston through Arlington, Burlington, and Billerica to Lowell. When Billerica declined MBTA bus service in December 1968, the MBTA eliminated stops in Billerica and ran non-stop between Burlington and Lowell. In June,1976, the MBTA cut back the bus line to terminate just south of the Billerica-Burlington town line.

After rejecting the MBTA as their provider of local bus service, Billerica was among the cities and towns that gathered in 1975 to create the Lowell Regional Transportation Authority. Statewide, there are now 15 autonomous regional transit authorities,  with 15 sets of boundaries based on the cities and towns that contribute to them.

If you want to compare the balkanization of Massachusetts transportation with a systemic, statewide approach, we need to look no further than New Jersey. Miles Taylor, whose self-described obsession with public traffic was nurtured on the trolleybuses of Cambridge, is now an urban studies student at the University of Pennsylvania. He has celebrated the statewide, systemic reach of New Jersey Transit by riding the agency’s trains from Port Jervis, New York, to Atlantic City (200+ Miles of Fun), followed by a 19-hour, 200 mile trip from Cape May to Monroe, New York exclusively on NJ Transit’s local buses.

Only a transit geek would want to ride exclusively local buses across New Jersey, but the fact that you can make that trip means that the system supports shorter trips around the state. NJ Transit does a much better job of meeting ridership demands than the plethora of transit agencies in Massachusetts.

NJ Transit’s systemic approach has been paired with some significant improvements in its system. They opened a 17-mile, 24 station light rail system in Bergen and Hudson counties in 2020, and a 34-mile, 21 station hybrid rail line from Trenton to Camden in 2004. In 1996, NJ Transit rewired the 82-mile electrified Morris and Essex line in order to connect it to the Northeast Corridor to serve Penn Station in New York.

Why did Massachusetts break up its transit systems into a bunch of autonomous agencies? Money. When the MBTA was established, funding was based on a blunt instrument, an assessment on cities and towns based on population. Billerica, and the other municipalities who chose to shun the MBTA for a regional transportation authority, thought the per-capita MBTA assessment was too expensive when compared to the level of service being provided by the T.

There is no question that good transit raises the value of an adjacent property, so a property-based tax is a reasonable means for raising revenue to fund transit. However, a uniform assessment across a city or town means that some taxpayers end up paying a premium price for service a mile or two away from their home.

While per-capita municipal assessments were necessary when the MBTA was created, information technology has improved to the point where we can assess the value of transit on individual parcels. The Massachusetts Bureau of Geographic Information maintains the Massachusetts Interactive Property Map, using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to map every parcel of land in the Commonwealth. GIS technology presents the opportunity to add a layer of transit resources (bus stops, train stations, ferry slips) to the map, calculate the level of service at each resource, and tax each property based on the benefit it receives from its proximity to public transit.

Think of transit as a public utility: in the same way property owners on streets with water and sewer service pay water and sewer taxes, a property owner will pay taxes based on proximity to public transit. For example, a commercial property owner in Davis Square would pay a significant tax, while a farmer in a rural corner of Berkshire County would pay no more than a few pennies.

Proximity-based property tax assessments will build a fiscal incentive for improved transit service. Want more bus service? Increasing the number of buses servicing a given stop will increase the transit benefit and tax revenue from nearby properties. It would also change the budgetary considerations for service reductions, as hypothetical savings from a service cut would be accompanied by a corresponding reduction in property tax revenue that funds that specific service.

Proximity-based taxing offers the opportunity to coordinate transit service with local policy objectives. Consider that Somerville and Cambridge built exclusive bus lanes at the same time the MBTA was reducing bus service on these streets. Empty bus lanes and 15-minute headways fueled objections to the new lanes. With proximity-based taxing, buses could be added to create a five-minute headway, and increased proximity taxes would offset the cost of additional service.

Proximity-based taxing also provides a platform for funding fare-free bus service. The process of collecting fares on buses is costly, both in dollars and dwell time at bus stops. The Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center makes the argument that the cost of administering a system to collect bus fares drains a significant percentage of the revenue generated at the fare box, and eliminating fares in favor of another revenue stream “eliminates a lot of hassle and costs” while “improving service and generating additional ridership.”

Funding a transit system must be based on the value it provides for a community. One unified, statewide transit agency for all modes of public transportation, with stable funding from proximity-based property taxes, will create a system that will generate prosperity and reduce our dependence on private automobiles. It will enable Miles Taylor to plan a ride from Nantucket to Williamstown, using an integrated system of buses, boats, and trains that make public transit a convenient and efficient option throughout our Commonwealth.

Paul Schlichtman is a member of the Arlington School Committee.