This article originally appeared on the Dig.
By Emily Hopkins
All photos: ALEX RAMIREZ
Working Title: “Fare Yikes”
Most people who have ridden the T since it did away with tokens in December 2006 recognize Charlie as a dandy fellow, dressed Don Draper-style and gleefully brandishing what we can assume to be his own CharlieCard from the window of a train.
I first heard about Charlie at summer camp in Upstate New York, years before I’d ever stepped foot in the Commonwealth. The old, grey campfire leader would weekly bring out the tune, “Charlie on the MTA,” about a man who pays a nickel to get on the T but does not have the newly requisite nickel to get off. Every day, Charlie’s wife goes down to what is now Government Center to hand him a sandwich “as the train comes rumblin’ through.”
The song says that Charlie “never returned / and his fate is still unlearned,” but it’s easy to see that he is still riding on the T—not only in our pockets and purses, but symbolically as we finally face the service cuts and fare hikes we heard about more than six months ago.
The MBTA accrued a lot of debt since 2000 due to the poor political plan of Forward Funding (the MBTA would get a penny for every nickel collected in a sales tax that Beacon Hill thought would increase; sales tax has actually fallen in the past decade) as well as the repeated borrowing the MBTA did in order to cover what that plan didn’t.
Now after a decade of gross mismanagement by Beacon Hill, Charlie’s getting stuck with the tab—a $52 billion tab.
I used to think that fare increases weren’t as bad as people were making them out to be, at least in how they pertained to me: paying $2.00 for the train and $1.50 for bus with my CharlieCard seemed to actually bring Boston up to other U.S. cities, like New York City and Chicago. But those cities dwarf Boston in land area—$2.25 can take you almost 40 miles in one subway trip in NYC. Riverside to Wonderland only gets you half as far for basically the same price.
What these fare hikes and service cuts come down to is what everyone, from Liberals to Occupiers to people who are not at all politically identified, is talking about these days:
placing the burden of a debt created by the people who were supposed to be managing the system—some of whom we apparently voted for—onto the backs of people who will have no choice but to bear it.
As far as fare hikes go, there are a few ways in which I see regular riders changing their public transportation habits: there will be those who are wealthy enough to drive or healthy enough to walk or bike. There will be the people who have no other choice but to forgo that extra $5-15 of their weekly income to ride the T to the source of that income. And then there are those who will be trapped—the disabled, the elderly, and others on fixed income. The people living in the outer parts of Boston Metro, or on Commuter Rail lines, who will now find certain weekend or evening activities unavailable to them and reserved for those who have the means to get there.
If I were 12 and playing Public Transportation Tycoon, I’d probably increase the fares to make more money—it seems so simple, people paying for what they use.
But what has been echoed at general assemblies and town hall meetings is: Public transportation is a right, not a privilege.
But that’s what the MBTA is turning public transportation into—a privilege—and for no other reason than to pay for the debts it earned by its own mismanagement. And it’s making a privilege out of Copley Square, too, and the Esplanade, and even the Boston Common (whose name itself means that it belongs to everyone). Because by raising fares they are making these destinations exclusive to those people like myself who have the means to live near or get to these places, who are wealthy or healthy enough to find alternative transportation via car or bike.
The MBTA and Beacon Hill have a responsibility to ensure that the citizens of Boston—all of the citizens—have access to their own city, lest they forget that it’s the citizens who make the city. People come to Boston for the accents and the seafood and the Red Sox—they come for the Bostonians, and could largely give a rat’s ass about that domed building that you can see from the Frog Pond.
I always wondered why Charlie’s wife never handed him that extra nickel with that sandwich. It turns out, it’s not the lacking nickel that’s the problem. This is not our debt, MBTA. It’s time to think of something else.