Jessica Robertson, Metropolitan Area Planning Council
Planners in Boston are inviting the public to try their hand at balancing the budget of the regional transportation agency through an innovative new website aimed at educating the public on the sometimes-esoteric topic of transportation finance.
After a decade of chronic underfunding, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or just “The T”) is facing a $161 million gap in its budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1st. In order to produce a state-mandated balanced budget, The T has proposed two different packages of fare increases and service cuts, both of which have generated strong public opposition. As the public comment period has proceeded, various stakeholders have weighed in with alternative options for raising revenue and cutting costs, while avoiding draconian fare increases and service cuts
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the regional planning agency for the greater Boston region of 101 cities and towns, has created an interactive online tool called the MBTA Budget Calculator, accessible at FixTheT.mapc.org.
MAPC created the online budget calculator to collect these ideas in one place and give the public an opportunity to compare the options side by side and come up with their own plan. Many of these alternative options would require action from the Legislature or the Patrick Administration, so MAPC added to the MBTA Budget Calculator a link that allows users to share their ideas with their legislators.
In the first 5 days that the site was live, more than 1,200 users have created budget plans that, not only fixed the deficit but created budget surpluses of $277 million on average. The most popular group of options shift costs from the MBTA to the fiscally-sound MassPort (which operates Boston’s Logan Airport as well as port facilities), recommending that MassPort take over the MBTA’s ferry service and pay more of the operations for the Logan Airport-bound Silver Line. Another popular cost-shifting option is transferring the Transit Police to the State Police, a strategy initially proposed by the MBTA Advisory Board. Two thirds of users have elected to raise the gas tax either by one cent or two cents per gallon. Conversely, none of the proposed options for service cuts have been chosen by more than 7% of respondents.
MAPC’s goal for the MBTA Budget Calculator is to educate the public on the variety of measures that could be taken to solve the MBTA’s budget crisis and demonstrate that there are many alternative solutions that can balance the budget while maintaining the current level of service and avoiding drastic fare increases. Additionally, MAPC hopes that the public response to the website will put pressure on the Legislature and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to implement some of these alternative strategies.
The tool has shown great potential for engaging the public in prioritization-discussions within the context of budget constraints. It will likely be adapted and re-used for other planning scenarios by the agency in the near future.
The website was produced in-house, using the Django web framework on the server, and jQuery and Bootstrap from Twitter for the user interface. The project is, like all other MAPC web products, open source and available on GitHub (https://github.com/mapc/mbta). If you re-use the code-base and make improvements to it, MAPC would love to hear back from you.
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