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Lawmakers yet to agree on bridging T funds gap

Fare increases taking effect soon

MBTA fare increases and service cuts will soon be taking effect. One of the proposed cuts is to Bus 48 that services Jamaica Plain. MBTA fare increases and service cuts will soon be taking effect. One of the proposed cuts is to Bus 48 that services Jamaica Plain. (Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 29, 2012
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Nearly two months after the MBTA board approved fare increases and service cuts to partially close the T’s budget deficit, Massachusetts lawmakers have yet to approve an infusion of $51 million in state money to cover the difference.

Key legislators say they remain confident the money will be allocated before a July 1 deadline, citing its importance to the MBTA, transit riders, and the regional economy, but they have yet to agree on the finer points of sending that aid to the T.

“We really need to find the solution that solves the MBTA problem and do it in a timely manner,’’ said state Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Lynn Democrat and Senate chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee. “I’m optimistic that we’re able to work through some of these differences and find an agreement.’’

Riders could be forgiven for thinking the matter was resolved April 4, when the T board cast a closely watched vote to raise prices for all trips and passes - including a 30-cent bump on CharlieCard subway fares and 25-cent increase on bus fares - and impose a smattering of service cuts, to take effect July 1.

But that covered only part of the gap for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which is legally bound to enter each year with a balanced budget. Rising costs - including debt payments, fuel, employee health insurance, and door-to-door service for a growing disabled population - make that a perennial challenge.

With the T facing a $160 million deficit, transportation officials in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration proposed covering the gap with massive fare increases and service cuts, a plan rebuked so soundly at packed public hearings that they opted for a less severe package worth less than $100 million. To make up the difference, they found a slew of one-time fixes, including the use of $51 million from a little-known surplus in an account generated by sticker fees for motor vehicle inspections.

That requires legislative approval, as does the Patrick administration’s plan to cap damages in personal injury lawsuits against the MBTA at $100,000, which it says could save the T $4 million annually.

House members on the Transportation Committee balked at the lawsuit cap and at sending the full inspection-sticker surplus to the T, saying money generated statewide should be distributed proportionally. They peeled off $5 million of the $51 million for the overshadowed, underfunded bus systems that serve cities such as Springfield and New Bedford.

They also called for giving the outlying bus agencies $1.5 million out of $5 million in leftover highway snow-removal money that had been earmarked for the T.

To make sure the T still gets the full amount it needs, House lawmakers want Massport to buy the T’s ferry boats, parking lots, and landings, and take over the MBTA’s four aquatic routes - a proposal that has gotten a lukewarm reaction from senators, the Patrick administration, and a reluctant Massport.

That would not immediately affect commuters but would provide needed funds to the T, transfer the ferries to a more financially stable organization, and place them in hands better suited to waterfront operations, said Representative William M. Straus, House chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee.

“It is absolutely certain that Massport is the better agency of government to be operating ferry service,’’ said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat. “They are a port development agency.’’

Massport, which runs Logan Airport, is one of the few airport operators allowed under a 30-year-old federal law to direct surpluses to select projects beyond the airport. It has written to the Federal Aviation Administration to determine whether the ferries would qualify, spokesman Matthew Brelis said.

“We have worked to support the state’s infrastructure system and we will continue to do so, but it’s got to be in a financially and legally responsible way,’’ he said. Though a 1974 state law anticipated a time when Massport might run the ferries, he questioned whether activating that “dormant’’ provision would run afoul of the FAA.

With a unanimous recommendation from House transportation committee members, the full House is likely to vote on the package in the next two weeks, said Straus, adding that he has received “uniformly positive reactions’’ from House colleagues about sending money to the regional bus agencies and requiring Massport to run the ferries.

The bill would then go to the Senate. McGee said he thinks the full sticker money should go to the T this year, and the other issues could be debated more thoroughly next year.

“We all recognize that the [regional bus agencies] also are facing challenges, but clearly the MBTA challenge is the most pressing right now,’’ he said.

In a statement, Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey - who appealed to lawmakers previously on behalf of the administration - expressed optimism. “We are confident a solution will be reached over the next month that is equitable and also closes the remaining MBTA budget gap,’’ he said.

A spokesman for Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said lawmakers appreciate the urgency of the situation. “It is the speaker’s intention to have a bill to Governor Patrick’s desk in advance of the end of the fiscal year,’’ Seth Gitell said in an e-mail.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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