On Tuesday, Jan. 3, the MBTA outlined two proposals to reduce the more than-$161 million budget deficit projected for fiscal 2013 in a presentation to legislators. Both proposals included fare hikes, the reduction of services and a complete elimination of the commuter boat subsidy. As the senator representing the South Shore, I know this will have a negative effect on my district. I am frustrated with the MBTA’s proposal, especially the elimination of the commuter boat subsidy.
The Hingham commuter boat has been a means of public transportation that I have supported since its inception. In fact, during the years of negotiations over the construction of the Greenbush commuter rail line from 2001 to 2007, I strongly advocated for an expansion of commuter boat services both in Hingham and Scituate over the creation of the commuter rail line. I have long since believed that Greenbush represents a decision marked by poor planning and false promises.
The years since the conclusion of construction have only further supported my original concerns regarding the $513 million Greenbush restoration project. In fact, the MBTA blue ribbon commission report from 2000 warned that “in order to avoid saddling future generations of riders with overwhelming costs…the committee recommends a moratorium on all capital projects” unless they “result in measurable increases in productivity or revenues.” Two years later, a Pioneer Institute study found that the MBTA was already straying from the recommendations of the 2000 report and again warned against unnecessary capital expansion. Unfortunately, these warnings went unheeded, and the Greenbush restoration went full steam ahead.
In 2010, the Metropolitan Planning Organization conducted a study of the recently completed Greenbush line comparing the projected ridership numbers and the actual numbers. The report is clear — Greenbush has not attracted riders, has hurt the commuter boat and not reduced any congestion on Route 3 or Route 3A as originally stated.
Greenbush ridership is only 60 percent of what was projected, with an actual peak ridership of 1,934 instead of the projected 3,320 by 2010. Ridership on commuter boats is down 24 percent since launch, and more than two-thirds of Scituate, Cohasset and Hingham riders used to use the commuter boat.
Greenbush is not removing cars from the highway, as 66 percent of Greenbush riders were already using mass transit — 15.8 percent on the commuter rail, 46.6 percent on the commuter boat and 3.4 percent by private bus. It has also not eased congestion, astraffic fell by a greater rate elsewhere in Metropolitan Boston region — 14 percent as compared to 4.2 percent in the Greenbush region — and the study said the decline has more to do with the recession and high gas prices.
I have never doubted the need for expanded mass transit options along the Greenbush corridor. I opposed the commuter rail because the constantly rising price tag — it jumped 25 percent alone between 2001 and 2007 — didn’t justify the relatively small number of cars being removed from the roadways, especially when the MBTA was prioritizing Greenbush over projects such as the Green Line extension to Medford, which would have a much larger impact on air quality and vehicular traffic. Additionally, the MBTA’s own report from the blue ribbon commission further supported my skepticism of the Greenbush restoration project.
On top of the sizeable annual debt service being paid by the MBTA for Greenbush, the MBTA must also pay millions of dollars annually to cover the line’s operating loss.
All of this is the backdrop to the proposals the MBTA presented to the Legislature. The plans include a potential 35 to 43 percent increase in fares and a 19 to 20 percent reduction in service, including cancellation of weekend service on the commuter rail, and both plans call for the entire elimination of the commuter boat subsidy.
While it is a cause for concern to be raising fares during a down economy, I can understand the need to increase fares throughout the entire MBTA system. I would prefer that fares are not increased, but the need for additional revenue at the agency is clear. What I cannot understand is why we would first create the commuter line — which abjectly affected a better, cheaper and already existing means of public transportation to the tune of $513 million from taxpayers — then eliminate the subsidy that supported the most cost-effective alternative. In addition to the elimination of the commuter boat, the MBTA would be canceling weekend service to the only remaining means of public transportation for residents on the South Shore, making this a curious decision at best.
Maintenance costs alone on the Greenbush line are exorbitant, including the now necessary replacement of all the concrete rail ties along the 57-mile Old Colony Line at a cost of $91.5 million to the taxpayers. This comes less than 10 years after the completed construction.
The commuter boat represented a better investment at the time of the Greenbush negotiations, and has only continued to look better since the new line’s completion. Eliminating an economically viable and potent industry in my district is not the way the T should go about solving its debt burden. Responsibility for bad decisions and poor planning lie with the agency responsible for those decisions, not those supporting the services they provide.
The burden of balancing the T’s budget should not fall solely on the commuters who use those services. It is time for real progress to be made, not knee-jerk reactions by an agency that has proved its inability to live within its means.
As a long-serving member of the transportation committee, I have been vocal regarding the MBTA’s repeated refusals to implement the recommendations of independent studies. The MBTA wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a boondoggle and now wants to clean up the mess by eliminating the most efficiently run service they provide while saddling customers with an overwhelming burden that the MBTA knew all along was unavoidable. This is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
Although I will be making my opposition clear, the MBTA still needs to hear directly from commuter boat riders. I encourage you to attend one of the MBTA’s upcoming local public hearings to express your concerns. The meetings are Wednesday, Feb. 8, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the central meeting room of Hingham Town Hall at 210 Central St., and Wednesday, Feb. 15, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Thomas Crane Public Library community room, 40 Washington St., Quincy.
I also recommend you to join the Facebook page I have created called “Save the MBTA Commuter Boat” to receive the latest updates on these proposals.
Also seen in Marshfield Mariner and Hingham Journal