A festive yet defiant crowd spilled over and off the steps of the Boston Public Library Monday, as hundreds gathered to protest the MBTA’s proposed plan to balance its budget by cutting T services and raising fares. Expressing a diversity of personal concerns and experiences, rally attendees from all over Boston showed unity in their opposition to the MBTA plan, objecting to it as an attack on the most vulnerable, oppressed, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized members of the community.
Chants echoed over the congestion of the evening commute: “Big Banks Get Bailed Out, T-riders get sold out!” “What do we do when banks attack? Stand up! Fight back!” The feel in the air was not simply one of complaint, but of a will to resist. It was the largest protest to date in opposition to proposed MBTA plans.
Following the rally, five hundred T-riders and concerned community members crowded inside for a public hearing. Seventy of them would take the microphone to address the MBTA officials. (Around one hundred people were locked out, however, as even the spill-over room was quickly full.) The diversity of Boston’s 99% was on display, with deaf and blind individuals, seriously disabled persons, elderly, students, people in work clothes, and many people of color speaking out. High school youth played an especially impressive role.
The Plan vs. the People
Both proposed MBTA plans call for a combination of rate hikes and service cuts. “Scenario 1” calls for 35-40% fare increases for all riders, 75-175% increases for seniors and student passes, and the elimination of 10% of all bus routes. “Scenario 2” calls for general fare increases of roughly 20%, an 85% increase for seniors, and the elimination of 58% of all bus routes.
Both plans also call for the elimination of Commuter rail services on weekends and after 10 pm on weekdays, as well as the elimination of ferry service. Each plan further calls for the elimination of the Mattapan-Ashmont trolley and the E branch of the Green Line on weekends.
The plans are predicted to eliminate between 200 and 500 T worker jobs, cost the average T-rider hundreds of dollars per year, and increase air pollution and automobile traffic across the city.
The emotions of T riders in the room could barely be restrained. Attendees heckled Mark Boyle, assistant general manager if the MBTA, as he laid out the MBTA’s rationale. Following his presentation, as if to quell a storm, Mayor Thomas Menino took the podium, himself testifying against the cuts. Describing the MBTA plan as a “band-aid” on a deeper illness, Menino called for the State to find new sources of revenue to sustain T services. Many in the crowd applauded.
A more militant spirit was present, however, as audience members interrupted Menino with calls of “Tax the Rich!” and “Tax the Billionaires!” Menino avoided the question of how to raise the needed funds, Telling ‘protesters’ to “take it outside,” Menino avoided the question of how to raise needed funds saying several times that “we [rich and poor] are all in this together.”
Many in the room did not feel like the rich and poor were “in it together,” but spoke of the cuts frankly as an attack on poor people by the rich. Some of the loudest applause came for those who demanded that rather than “making the poor pay more,” the government should get the needed money from the rich, the billionaires, the banks, the “1%.”
While only a few speakers at the microphone identified themselves as members of Occupy, the language of the movement was much in evidence, with many people expressing their grievances through the lens of the “99%” and the “1%.” The last speaker of the night gave a rousing speech in Chinese (via interpreter), demanding that the wealthy “1%” be made to pay, and vowing to fight against the MBTA plan.
As occupier and rally attendee Dean Samuels put it, “The owners, the 1%, they need workers to go to work so they can make their profits. Why shouldn’t they have to pay the transport costs?” A 1% wealth tax on the richest 1% would yield funds sufficient not only to eliminate the current T crisis, but to completely fund free public transportation, according to recent accounting estimates.
Several speakers argued that public transit should be expanded, not cut back. Others pointed out the hypocrisy of a government that spends trillions on wars and bank bailouts but then pleads poverty when it comes to funding public transportation.
High school students were out in force. Several called into question the legitimacy of the MBTA and the Legislature, which they characterized as not being “of the people and by the people.” Two youth speakers asked the MBTA officials to prove they actually rode the T by showing their Charlie cards to the crowd. Other youth speakers, donning masks, openly mocked Governor Deval Patrick for “ducking” the issue at the State Level, staging public “apologies” for his negligence.
While the official MBTA narrative tends to focus narrowly on the immediate $160 million budget shortfall, T riders showed that they are growing wise to the historical and structural causes of the current crisis.
The Making of a Crisis
The origins of this crisis can be traced to the passage of the 2000 Enabling Act (also known as “Forward Funding”). This state law limited financial support for the MBTA to 20% of state sales tax, while simultaneously dumping $3.8 billion in state debt, much of which stemmed from the Big Dig, onto the MBTA. This Big Dig debt itself stemmed in turn from the cost overruns of corporate contractor Bechtel, as well as the failure of the Federal government to follow through with billions of dollars in promised transportation funding.
With the sales tax failing to meet the T’s needs, the MBTA was pulled into borrowing, making complex financial deals with private banks and other investors. The end result of these transactions has been a ballooning of the MBTA’s debt to the point that nearly 25% of the T’s overall operating budget goes just to servicing the interest on the debt, at the expense of much needed service improvements, albeit to the profit of the T’s private creditors.
As Matt McGlaughlin of Occupy Somerville put it, riding the rails to Copley with other occupiers, “Every time you use the bus or train, that money goes towards paying interest to banks like JP Morgan, banks that received billions of taxpayer dollars in bailouts.” Some have called for canceling this debt altogether, arguing that private profits should be cut before needed public services.
Others argue that the State Legislature remains responsible for keeping the T in its current dire straits. T-Rider rallies have been called for Feb. 25 at the Massachusetts State House. There is another major “Wisconsin Style” State House T action being planned for April 4th when the MBTA Board plans to issue its decision.
For more information visit “Occupy the T” or “Occupy the MBTA” on Facebook. A schedule of the remaining MBTA public meetings can be found at www.mbta.com.