This winter’s unprecedented string of snow storms have wrought havoc on Boston’s subway and commuter-rail systems. Residents are frustrated with the closures and massive delays, businesses have lost substantial revenue as a result, and university schedules and coursework are deeply disrupted when students and faculty have no means to get to campus. Low-wage workers bear the disproportionate cost as hourly wages are only paid when hourly on-site work occurs.
Ideas on how to fix the T are manifold in policy circles but, unfortunately, neoliberal solutions—replicating private laissez-faire market practices and values in government—seem to be dominating Governor Baker’s favored fixes. The research suggests it will be the less affluent who pay if neoliberalism wins.
Governor Baker’s budget follows in what Political Scientist Suzanne Mettler coins a “starve the beast” mentality whereby key governmental functions are woefully underfunded. When the underfunding leads to inevitable problems, the favored solution is to privatize key government responsibilities because “government just was not up to the task.” The MBTA has been set-up to fail in exactly this fashion by the legislature and past administrations. Governor Baker’s budget, passed by the democratically controlled House and Senate, continues this trend. Rather than upping the funds so obviously needed for system modernization his budget cuts 40 million dollars from transportation including $14 million from the MBTA.
Enter the Pioneer Institute.Governor Baker is former Executive Director of this fiscally conservative policy institute that favors “public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.” His commitment to these market principles in government were on full display in his inaugural address and Baker’s Education Secretary pick, and former manager of transition team, James Peyser, was a Pioneer associate. Within days of the first of the T’s major shutdowns, Pioneer released a list of recommendations for fixing the T’s most glaring structural problems. Among the most prominent were recommendations to purchase new rail cars, signalization, maintenance, and repair upgrades. The institute advocated for the selling of “all monetizable real estate assets” and directing “the revenues toward capital improvements,” and reinstating management rights so as to circumvent collective bargaining in “certain matters.” Cuts to existing bus routes, halting system expansion, not hiring new workers, introducing performance metrics to provide financial incentives for workers, and eliminating the Buy American directive for the T as well as cutting back on safety regulations were all in the mix. Pioneer also recommended the state take on portions of the T’s debt to increase accountability.
While we agree with Pioneer’s recommendation to free MBTA of some of the Big Dig debt load, the problem with these proposed solutions – in their totality – is that they fail to take into account the fact that public service values of political incorporation and citizen outreach cannot be reduced to metrics of profitability and efficiency alone. Cutting bus routes and halting new stations or lines means the most vulnerable Bostonians and Bay State residents cannot move across our state for employment, commerce, or to use the amenities in Boston. And the assumption that the T’s problems have to do with not having the financial incentive to work (meet benchmarks) is insulting.Public service motivation to serve one another is real and doing the job right requires the right number of employees. There is no evidence that increases in employees in recent years caused the T’s failures – in fact these mission-driven employees might very well have prevented MBTA troubles until now.
In short, the research indicates that if Governor Baker adopts many of the proposals advocated by his former employer, less affluent Bay Staters and the T’s staff will be most acutely affected. The proposed sidestepping of collective bargaining requirements, for instance, strips workers of political recourse should they deem changes at MBTA unfavorable to riders. Cutting less traveled bus routes hurts the poor and working-class residents the most as they are least likely to have a car to rely on and travel greater distances to get into many parts of Boston because of skyrocketing housing costs.
In the Governor’s own budget, much is made of using funds from recent fare hikes to make-up his budget cuts. The Governor anticipates $5.4 million of his MBTA cut would be replaced by higher-than-expected fare revenues following 1.5 percent ridership increase. Left unstated is that this “recovered” $5.4 million was paid for by commuters, many of whom struggle with the T’s steadily increasing fares.
The MBTA is not without fault in exacerbating these inequities. It continues to prioritize the return of service to the Braintree line, which serves primarily middle-class neighborhoods and areas of burgeoning commerce. Conversely, the adjacent Ashmont line serves several low-income neighborhoods and is prioritized after Orange and Green line revival.
The problem with these solutions and priorities then is that they fit an all too neoliberal familiar script and lead to an all too familiar, inequitable final act. First implemented in the 80’s and steadily gaining ground since then, the negative effects of government’s efforts to streamline budgets when efficiency alone reigns, forgets the public service mission of empowering and incorporating citizens in the public sector. If the MBTA’s troubles are counteracted with neoliberalism alone, it is the community at large and less affluent Bay Staters in particular who suffer.In the neoliberal approaches to governance, higher-income neighborhoods - which generate more tax revenue - are prioritized over low-income neighborhoods. This system heightens disparities in citizen representation by putting a price tag on government services that some simply cannot pay.
And implementation of this neoliberal agenda is far from consistent – when it advantages laissez-faire advocates to abandon. In the private market, according to traditional economists, the equilibrium wage rate depends on a perfectly competitive labor market. The prisoners brought in by Mayor Walsh to clear snow in Boston and on the MBTA were paid twenty cents an hour – embarrassingly less than what a competitive market would provide. Despite Mayor Walsh’s cheery proclamation that such work is “creating opportunities for our inmates,” at the rate of 20 cents an hour it would take an inmate 375 hours to pay for a one month T-pass. The fact that this “solution” was deemed viable is emblematic of how neoliberal ideals undercut the public service mission and the values of fair pay and service that underpin it.
The T needs fixing but it needs a fix that recognizes that some lines may not be cost-effective but are deeply effective for empowering for local residents. MBTA provides a public service not just a public utility that privileges the financially secure.
This entry is co-authored with Lucas Goren, University of Massachusetts Boston.