A few months ago, Boston's transit agency announced that in order to meet its mandatory budget goals, it was going to have to do one of two things:
- Cut lots of service and raise fares a bit
- Cut some service and raise fares a lot
Services on the chopping block include:
- Commuter rail, which serves many outlying suburbs, after 10pm and on weekends. No more trips to the North Shore for you people in Boston! And if you use it to get to work on the weekends, or you leave work really late? Tough.
- Weekend service on the branch of the Green Line that serves Northeastern University, the VA hospital, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Because tourists, students, and veterans can surely just use the buses instead. (Actually, the bus that parallels most of that route . . . well, it's often faster than the train.)
- The ferries that connect more far-flung communities with Boston. They don't serve a huge number of people, but for those people, that is their only option to get to jobs in Boston without a horribly long commute by car.
- Over 100 bus lines. Some communities would lose all of their public transit. All of it.
The history of the T's debt is complicated. The state legislature has not been real good about making sure our public transit is taken care of. They dumped a bunch of debt onto our public transit that belongs to the Big Dig - which serves auto traffic. And the MBTA made further mistakes trying to decrease its debt.
As you can imagine, many people are up in arms about the current proposals. Occupy Somerville has been focused on this more than any other local or national issue, and many people in Occupy Boston are as well. Lots of other citizen and transit-oriented groups have held rallies, put up flyers in bus stops, and shown up in force at the many public hearings that the MBTA is using to gather feedback about the proposals.
Below is video and my notes and commentary about the hearing in Somerville on Tuesday night.
This is a 10 minute sample of the rally and 2.5 hours of testimony at last night's MBTA hearing in Somerville. The video was put together by one of the folks from the Boston Occupier (he was sitting in front of me, and he taped most of the hearing), but all the speakers are from Occupy. Mostly Occupy Somerville. If you skip to about 4:25, you'll get to the hearing; at about 6:25 - well apparently the editor of the 2.5 hours of testimony liked what I was saying well enough to put it in there. Or maybe it was the audience reaction. I don't know.
Here is the text I had prepared, though I altered it slightly once I got there, and I got cut off shortly before I finished:
Hi. My name is Cat. A year after I moved to Somerville, I sold my car, because I could get around just fine without it, thanks to our public transit. In 7 years, I have barely missed it.
Look, everyone here knows that what the T is proposing is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. I expect everyone here also knows that a major cause of this problem is the failure of our government to treat our public transit properly, and to figure out a good long-term solution.
I still have not heard a damn thing from our legislature about coming up with a long-term solution, but I did learn something that worries me about what they might propose.
See, in January, the Department of Transportation hired a new Chief Financial Officer, a man named Dana Levenson. Mr. Levenson is a corporate investment banker.
He also worked for the City of Chicago. His area of expertise is leasing or selling off public infrastructure to private companies. He convinced Chicago to lease a major toll road, and a bunch of other revenue sources, like parking garages. The city got a couple big fat checks – ONCE. The people who had full-time jobs on that toll road are now part-time independent contractors with NO benefits.
This is what our new chief financial officer for the Mass. Department of Transportation does. He figures out how to lease PUBLIC infrastructure to PRIVATE corporations. And those corporations make their profits by raising fares and cutting jobs and benefits.
If I have to pay more to ride the T, I want that money to go to the T, not some corporation that just wants bigger profits.
We've had enough of this crap that profits are the most important thing. That's what got us into this recession. We need public transit to stay public. We need it to work for US. And if our legislature won't do that, then we need to make it clear that they are going to be looking for new jobs.
We need a long-term solution that will serve us, and give us public transportation that is worthy of the 21st century.
I am here, with Occupy Somerville, because I believe that we need solutions that work for the good of people, not profits.
I knew going into it that I was going to go overtime; I'd practiced earlier in the day, and had it to 2 minutes. Then when the hearing started, they announced people would get 90 seconds. Oh well; I had covered the most important points when I was cut off. I just wanted to threaten the legislators one more time, and mention I was with Occupy Somerville.
The audience reaction was pretty awesome. I mean, seriously gratifying to hear the boos and hisses in response to what I was saying about Mr. Privatization er I mean the new CFO for MassDOT.
When I volunteered during a planning session to speak last night, I thought I was going to say something about the banks that hold the T's debt, but then I learned a little more about the T's debt and . . . holy shit, is that complicated. Too complicated for me to easily wrap my head around, or condense into a couple minutes, or even to say "BOO THE BANKS. THE BANKS SUCK" because the way the debt is being managed is just too complex for that.
Then on Monday, one of the Occupy the MBTA people forwarded some information about Levenson, and I had my topic.
And a bad, bad, bad case of stage fright.
I don't get stage fright. I'm rarely very nervous when I know I'm going to do any kind of public speaking; I've done a little theatre (in grade and high school), solo musical performances, dozens of military briefings to high level officers, final presentations in grad school where I also had to answer critical questions . . . as long as I know what I'm going to say, I'm fine.
But I've never, ever spoken publicly about something that might be the least bit controversial, and certainly not in front of HUNDREDS of people, and in my head, when I was writing my statement, I was FULL ON RANTING. Which I was cool with, honestly, I thought it would be a reasonable time and place for that kind of display. But I was nervous about how the information would be received. (I remain surprised that apparently I spoke with a fairly moderate tone.)
Then we had a rally ahead of the hearing. Outside. It was cold. I had not had dinner. So by the time we went inside, I was freezing, and I was shaking from: the cold, the no dinner, and the stage fright.
I could feel my legs shaking uncontrollably when I was in line to speak (I was number 8, thanks to other Occupiers who went in early to get numbers for the speakers), and I worried this would affect my speaking. But just a few seconds before the guy before me stopped speaking, all the shakes went away, and I was fine.
I stayed for the entire hearing; it ran until about 8:45, almost an hour longer than scheduled.
There were many, many good points made, from very small ("if the 80 is cut, I'll have to take the 88, which means walking up a really steep, icy hill in the winter . . . many elderly people who take the 80 can't walk up that hill, period") to the large ("what does this say about our values, that we don't have a long-term transportation plan that works for our most vulnerable people?"). Occupy Somerville probably had about 10 people speaking, and there were additional folks from Occupy Boston speaking, too. Some focused on big scale issues, and some on more local concerns.
I wish I had taken notes. The collective knowledge and wisdom of the speakers was impressive. It was beautiful.
The man who spoke Portuguese, who was so riled up he spoke over the translator, but I think I caught one bit - he said we ought to take a better look at how things are done in Brazil, because they're done some great things with public transit in their major cities (this is true. There are some amazing public transit solutions in Brazil). At least a couple other people asked if the T was looking at other transit systems for ideas - no, not just in the US, in Europe.
Another speaker I remember explained how he moved to his current home because of the bus that could get him to work (a common theme) in Kendall Square, and how his neighborhood had grown up around having public transit: before that bus, it was served by a streetcar. And now this bus, after 100+ years of existence, may be cut. What does that do to a neighborhood that has evolved around it?
One of the things that struck me later is that, to figure out what routes to cut, the MBTA is undoubtedly using some nice data-laden system for evaluating which buses carry the least passengers or some such thing.
But how can you possibly put a price on people NOT having to walk up a hill? Or residents in a housing project losing the one bus that connects them with Boston, connects the kids that live there with museums?
I know - I know - that people want to be able to quantify things, it's a nice easy way to make comparisons when you have to make tough choices, or make budgetary choices.
But it's so wrong. It's just - inhuman, on some level.
Or maybe it means the data set is just incomplete. Maybe, if you had enough data, you -could- put a price tag on the 73 year old freelancer's ability to get to her job in the suburbs, which she will lose if one of her buses is cut. What does that cost the state, if she can't work? Or has to move? What does it cost the state if the blind man who spoke so passionately has to depend on his family to get around? I can't remember how he put it - "re-institutionalizing" or something. What is the cost of the teenagers who can't get to school easily any more? The parents who, living in a city, don't own a car, and now can't easily take a sick child to the doctor?
I am so completely sick of "but we must make X dollars" and flat-out ignoring all the other costs I can't even put it into words. It's so dehumanizing it's enraging.
Several state reps and senators were at the hearing. Well, at least in the beginning. They - and the Mayor - all took their turn at the microphone before us mortals got to speak. They all were pro-T, anti-service cuts, of course. And I believe them, mostly, but I don't think many - or maybe any - of them stayed through to the end.
"Call your reps," people kept saying. "Write them letters! Real letters, with stamps!" people said.
If they fucking care about what people are saying, they can stick the fuck around and hear everything they need to know. Or at least take a fucking number and stand in line with the rest of us - the group of aldermen who spoke did that, kudos to them.
I'm sure they've all already gotten loads of calls and letters and such, but I can't believe the impact of that can compare to hearing 2.5 hours of person after person after person speaking on the topic, covering every scale, and every issue, from T-workers losing their jobs to the environmental impact to youth and people with disabilities losing their transportation to the historical context (Somerville used to have lots of streetcars. And then Ford, the auto company, moved in).
Given Mr. Sell All the Things! in the MassDoT, and the legislators saying "We want to come up with a plan," I'm seriously concerned about what's coming our way in the next year or two. Maybe they won't lease the T; there's plenty of other DoT property to look over. Lease away for 99 years. Sell outright. Who cares about losing citizen voices for those things for that long? Or forever. We can get a nice sum of money for it Right Now and Solve This Problem!
Since writing my initial draft, I seem to have agreed to be part of a panel on a local Occupy TV discussion about the MBTA. I am going to spend the next few days researching the hell out of this privatization issue, so that I don't turn into a drooling, blank-eyed mess on the teevee. What I read already, to prepare for Tuesday night, it does not fill me with glee.