The prospect of fare increases and service cuts can't please those who rely on the MBTA for commuting to work or getting around the North of Boston region.
But something has to be done to address the transit agency's budget gap, which officials say could reach $161 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and doesn't include funding for any capital improvements or even major maintenance issues.
In its effort to present information to the public on proposed fare and service changes, the MBTA cannot ignore riders in the Merrimack Valley who depend on the commuter rail service to get to their jobs in the Greater Boston area.
We suggest all taxpayers, not just regular riders, familiarize themselves with the T's financial situation. The transportation authority has scheduled a number of public hearings on the fare and service changes, but none in our local area. According to the T's website, the closest hearings are in Lowell on Feb. 6 and in Malden on Feb. 16.
We suggest that the MBTA owes riders on the Haverhill commuter line an opportunity to participate in a public forum on the proposed changes. For now, information is available on the website (www.mbta.com).
We like the fact that people both within and outside the state transportation bureaucracy are insisting the agency keep up the pressure to reduce costs. For decades, the MBTA was known as one of the most bloated and profligate transit systems in the country, and while there have been significant efforts to curb those practices in recent years, more can and must be done on the spending front.
"We've gotten the low-hanging fruit, so now we have to take some pain," John Jenkins, chairman of the Department of Transportation's board of directors, noted last week. "If the public's going to take some pain with fare increases, we have to take some pain with efficiencies too."
It's clear that there is still plenty of room for improvement at the MBTA. Just this past weekend, reports of a T memo to employees reminding them not to sleep on the job made national news. The December memo, posted in a number of Green Line terminals, reminds employees of their duty under the authority's "Rule 19": "An employee must not sleep or give the appearance of sleeping while on duty."
It would seem there is still some "low-hanging fruit" on the vine.
Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has made it known his boss, Gov. Deval Patrick, is "not happy" with the possibility of people having to pay more to use T services or losing some of those services.
On other hand, T officials make a convincing case that greater efficiencies alone will not offset projected increases in the cost of fuel, energy, health care and debt service on the agency's staggering $5.2 billion in outstanding loans, much of which represents its share of Big Dig costs and the cost of performing essential repairs.
The two scenarios unveiled last week would increase fares either 35 percent or 43 percent. There would be fewer service cuts with the higher increase, but both scenarios call for, among other things, the elimination of all ferry routes and the elimination of late-night and weekend service on the commuter rail lines.
An increase in the gas tax to subsidize T operations, suggested by some, is a non-starter in our view. On the other hand, some type of fare increase (the last one occurred in 2007, and current train, subway and bus fares are lower than those in most other major metropolitan areas), a close look at costs (up 400 percent in the last decade) and revenues associated with the T's RIDE program, as well as some service cuts, would seem to be in order.