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House set to approve $49m in aid for MBTA

Officials stress need for long-term relief

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 12, 2012
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The House is poised to vote Wednesday on an emergency funding package for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, with key lawmakers saying they expect to get the measure to Governor Deval ­Patrick’s desk by June 30.

The plan to send $49 million in state aid is less than the Patrick ­administration had initially hoped for and still leaves the agency about $6 million short of closing a projected deficit on its $1.8 billion budget for the year that starts July 1.

But officials said the package will spare them from having to raise fares beyond increases already planned for July and that they could make up the difference internally.

Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey and lawmakers said the plan is a one-year solution that only nibbles at the edges of the state’s massive transportation funding problems, on the same day documents released by the state and federal government indicated that Patrick’s administration is considering a statewide tax on miles driven, a transfer of debt from the ­MBTA to the state’s books, and the use of projected casino revenue to pay for transportation.

“We’re in crisis mode for transportation; the T really is the tip of the iceberg,” Davey said, after speaking at a South Station forum with local officials and advocates calling for long-term solutions.

The MBTA and the 15 regional transit agencies that provide bus service beyond Greater Boston have all faced fare increases and service cuts, and all — including the T, the nation’s most indebted transit agency — struggle to keep up with basic maintenance and meet rider demands.

The state’s highway system is in no better financial shape, borrowing to pay even for day-to-day operations such as paving and mowing. Many ­academics and advocates say the problems stem not so much from inefficiency but from a lack of money — specifically because of longtime reluctance to ­increase the gas tax, impose other transportation taxes, or raise tolls, as well as transit fares.

“For too long, we have tried to apply a Band-Aid,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston told a crowd of more than 100 at South Station, one of many officials to stress the value of past investment and the need for more, for the sake of the regional economy, the environment, and the quality of life. “You can’t do reconstructive surgery with a first-aid kit.”

Lawmakers have said they will have a wider discussion on transportation revenue in 2013, focusing for now on the deadline for the one-year fix.

With debt payments, energy costs, federally mandated door-to-door service for the disabled, and employee health insurance driving MBTA costs up faster than its income, which comes chiefly from fares and a portion of the state sales tax, the T faced a deficit of $160 million for the coming year. The Patrick ­administration whittled that to about $60 million, partly through fare increases and service cuts that will take effect ­July 1, before asking legislators to make up the difference, mostly through a little-known surplus generated by statewide motor vehicle inspection fees.

The measure will be discussed in a Democratic caucus Tuesday and go to the floor for a vote Wednesday, with expected approval sending the bill to the Senate. If that happens, Davey said, the T could make up the rest by a delay in filling vacancies and by a drop in interest charges on some adjustable-­rate debt held by the T.

The House plan also sets up the chance that the more financially stable Massachusetts Port Authority could buy the T’s ferry boats, piers, and parking lots and take over commuter boat operations after additional study this summer.

Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration gave ­incremental approval Monday to the state’s $1 billion-plus plan to extend the MBTA’s Green Line beyond Lechmere Station into Somerville and Medford, an expansion the state legally committed to as part of a roster of transit improve­ments two decades ago to offset the air-quality impact of the Big Dig highway project and to comply with environmental law.

But federal authorities said they would be reluctant to grant 50 percent reimbursement for the project until the state demonstrates it can better support the T and the existing transportation system.

The House and Senate cochairmen of the Joint Transportation Committee said lawmakers are ­focused on the immediate deadline for the T, while recognizing the wider needs of the MBTA and the statewide transportation system.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to get this done pretty quickly,” said Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Lynn Democrat and Senate chairman of the joint committee. “We have not been sitting back on this, [but]this just solves today’s problem. . . . The discussion needs to be continued in a passionate and rational and reasonable way as we go forward.”

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

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