MBTA board says it faces ‘unpopular, even painful’ choices

–The Boston Globe

The board that oversees the MBTA says toppling the transit system’s $7.3 billion repair backlog is high on its priority list. But getting there will require “unpopular, even painful’’ choices and a steady annual commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to maintenance, board members wrote in their first annual report to the state legislature.

“The system’s urgent need for a long-term financial commitment to a capital plan cannot be overstated,’’ the five members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board wrote in a letter attached to the report.

The board, which began meeting in the summer after it was created to grapple with the T’s problems, said spending $765 million per year for 25 years to eliminate the repair backlog should be “the MBTA’s top capital priority.’’ The total price tag works out to $18.8 billion over 25 years, or $24.8 billion accounting for inflation, according to the report.

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The board is appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, who has also stressed the need for improving the T’s existing system. In an interview with POLITICO Massachusetts this week, Baker described success at the T as “if you took the core system and you fixed it and made it so reliable and dependable that you increased ridership by 50 percent.’’

The repair backlog is part of the T’s capital budget, which covers expansion and maintenance. The board also described balancing its operating budget, which covers the costs of running the system and is projected for a $242 million gap next year, as an “urgent’’ goal.

In recent years, the MBTA’s operating budget has been supported by additional funding from the state legislature beyond what the T already gets as a portion of the state sales tax. This fiscal year, for example, the legislature kicked in $187 million of the T’s $2 billion budget.

In the report, the board members pointed to the $187 million offered this year, and said that even if the budget gap is closed, it could still use the money to help pay for capital costs like repairs.

“The [board]’s intent is to maximize the utilization of that funding for State of Good Repair (SGR) maintenance,’’ the board wrote in its letter to the legislature.

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Transit advocates have urged the control board in recent weeks to ask for $260 million from the legislature to put toward fixing the system, as was projected under a 2013 transportation financing law. But the report indicates the control board won’t ask for that much.

Next year’s projected budget gap has been the focus of many control board meetings in the past several months. The report summarizes some of the “difficult’’ options that have already been considered, including canceling late-night bus and subway service, increasing fares, adjusting service on the T’s door-to-door service for disabled customers, and negotiating with labor unions for a potential one-time deferment of scheduled pay raises.

The board said other, less controversial, plans to close the gap include maximizing real estate-related revenue, and cutting planned but unnecessary spending increases across several MBTA departments.

The board also described ongoing efforts to reduce employee absenteeism and to make more system on-time performance data available to customers online.

The report reflected on expansion projects in light of the budgetary struggles of the Green Line extension, which were unveiled shortly after the board was created. The board said future expansion projects should be approached with “great scrutiny,’’ juxtaposing expansion against the aging T’s repair needs.

“The ongoing pattern of early low estimates that balloon later in the process serves to distort the planning process, damages the MBTA’s credibility with the public, and reduces needed spending on maintenance,’’ the report said. “… The MBTA should limit its participation in any expansion projects to a level that allows it to fully fund State of Good Repair commitments in current and future years.’’

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You can read the full report here.

 

 

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