A state bailout of the cash-strapped MBTA won the backing of 40 percent of Massachusetts voters surveyed in a new Boston Globe poll, outstripping those who said they would categorically oppose an infusion of aid.
Support was most robust among those living inside Route 128, the T’s core service area.
The statewide results, which showed 34 percent of respondents opposed using state dollars to plug the T’s budget gap and 26 percent were undecided or did not know, came as a surprise to analysts, who expected wider opposition to state intervention.
“I frankly thought it would be almost 2 to 1 against because the economy’s bad, people are worried about their jobs,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll for the Globe.
Those who have long called attention to the state’s mounting transportation funding crisis – the T is the nation’s most indebted transit agency, and the highway system is so revenue-starved it must borrow to pay for routine upkeep – said they are heartened by the poll results.
“That’s a good sign, because I think that this conversation that’s been unfolding over the last few months has really made [many] more people aware of how important the MBTA is,’’ said Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. “Even people who don’t necessarily use it themselves have heard and read a lot about how important it is to other people and to the economy and employers.’’
The poll of 540 likely voters, taken from March 21 to 27, came after weeks of contentious hearings over preliminary MBTA proposals to erase a $160 million deficit for the upcoming budget year entirely through fare hikes and deep service cuts, without turning to the state for more aid.
The Globe poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points, ended a day before the state’s transportation secretary unveiled a less severe set of fare increases and service cuts than riders had feared. The blow was softened by tapping nearly $60 million in one-time state funds to avoid severe service cuts while imposing a 30-cent increase on most subway trips and charging bus riders an extra 25 cents. That plan goes to the MBTA board for a vote Wednesday but requires legislative approval to release most of the state aid.
Geography appeared to figure prominently in how people felt about funding the T.
“Boston should stand on its own two feet,’’ said Mark Riley, a West Springfield resident questioned in the random survey of landlines and cellphone numbers.
In Western Massachusetts, only 28 percent of respondents supported using state funds to balance the T’s budget, while 41 percent rejected that proposition; 31 percent were unsure or undecided.
That contrasted sharply with answers from inside Route 128: 52 percent of those respondents said they supported using state aid to alleviate the T’s deficit, while only 28 percent were opposed.
In prime commuter rail territory – between 128 and Interstate 495 – 43 percent backed using state aid, while 31 percent objected.
“We should use state funds,’’ said Kerry Thompson of Melrose, a poll respondent who elaborated in an interview on the benefits of investing in the MBTA.
“I’ve lived in Europe and Asia, so this may color my viewpoint, but getting cars off the street, making center cities more attractive, [and improving] air quality’’ are all reasons to spend state taxes on Greater Boston’s transit system, said Thompson, 62, a computer programmer and French horn player whose wife commutes on the Orange Line. “People taking individual vehicles is very, very wasteful.’’
In the Springfield area, Riley, 52, uses the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which has proposed its own fare increase as well as some service reductions on routes that T riders would consider scattered and infrequent.
“If you live in these hill towns, you’re [squeezed]. You’re not getting to work unless you have a car,’’ said Riley, who said he no longer drives and lives on disability after a heart attack that caused a debilitating fall from construction scaffolding.
Support for using state funds varied widely based on political leaning, income, education, race, and other factors, but was higher overall than analysts expected.
But that does not necessarily mean voters would support the specific tax increases expected to be debated next year on Beacon Hill to pay for transportation, said Smith. And the question did not explore whether voters considering state aid for the T know that the state already provides nearly $1 billion annually to the transit agency.
The budget fix proposed last week is just a one-year patch, Governor Deval Patrick and Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey emphasized. The MBTA faces pressure because of escalating debt payments.
More help will be needed not just for the T but for the state’s badly indebted highway and bridge system and starved regional bus agencies, Patrick said, adding that without new, dedicated transportation taxes, residents could expect substantial cuts and less service.
Analysts said work remains to explain to the public that fares alone do not cover the cost of any transit system, and that the state’s gas taxes and tolls – rarely raised because of political pressure – fall short of providing enough money for road paving and striping, let alone major bridge and highway repairs.
But the public has been sheltered from the realities because rampant borrowing pushed the problems, and the cost, down the line.
Patrick and top lawmakers have said they will discuss these issues substantively in 2013, though they have not floated specifics beyond a gas tax increase, which Patrick tried and failed to secure three years ago.
Brian Kane, budget and policy analyst for the MBTA Advisory Board, said a transportation tax would be a tough sell if it did not also raise money for highways and bus systems across the state.
“If the discussion is just about the MBTA, I don’t think it’s going to get too far,’’ said Kane, whose board represents communities in the T’s service area.
Stephen J. Silveira, a Republican lobbyist and influential Beacon Hill voice on transportation, said funding – at least to maintain the existing system – should be automatic and apolitical.
“It’s unfair to everybody to have these transportation issues in the Legislature, because really the public policy question is what the Legislature deals with: Do I want to have a road? Do I want to have a transit system?’’ he said.
Slashing T service should be no more of an option than closing interstates, Silveira said.
“People realize it’s not just a selfish, ‘Hey, I don’t use the system; not my problem,’ ’’ Silveira said, adding that without state aid for transit, “be prepared to have lots and lots of company on the roads.’’
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.