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Advocates: House budget won’t fix MBTA problems

Eliza Dewey

The budget released by the House Ways and Means Committee last week seeks to tackle the public transit system’s woes by auditing the MBTA’s finances and suspending for five years a 1993 law that makes it more difficult for state agencies to outsource public services to private entities.

Public transit advocates who were hoping to see an increase in funding for upgrades and repairs expressed disappointment.

Lee Matsueda, a program director at Alternatives for Community and Environment, said he feared the budget signaled that costs would be passed on to commuters who could least afford it.

“We look at this [proposal] and we see threats of fare increases,” he said. “[Raising revenue] is an important thing, but there has to be controls on that.”

Matsueda said that at the heart of it, the House budget “doesn’t address structural issues,” including longer-term financing.

The MBTA came under fire following the release of a scathing report by a special panel specially convened by Governor Charlie Baker in the wake of the historic winter snowstorms. The MBTA Panel found that roughly $2.2 billion allocated to the system since 2010 for system repairs remains unspent, seemingly deflating calls from transportation advocates for greater funding for the system.

Matsueda argued, however, that the governor’s report was not the final word. “The public needs to consider that this report is one view – Charlie Baker’s view – of what needs to happen,” he said. “To transform the MBTA we need to invest in the system, particularly in communities that depend on public transit, not penalize them with fare increases.”

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means budget allocates the same level of direct MBTA funding as the governor’s budget proposal released in early March: $187 million.

Rafael Mares, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said that his group was “pleased to see that the House budget generally reflects the continued importance of funding our transportation system.”

However, Mares added that the $187 million should actually be increased to $202 million to be consistent with the commitments that were made with the Transportation Finance Act of 2013.

There are disagreements about how binding that 2013 legislation is. As the Banner reported when the governor first released his budget, a spokesperson for state’s Administration and Finance office said the 2013 law did not specifically mandate a dollar amount, and that the $202 million was only included in a “draft schedule” published later. Mares told the Banner by email that while this claim is technically correct — “a legislature cannot bind a future legsilature when it comes to authorizations” — the $202 million amount was laid out in a budget accompanying the law, which presumably would have shaped the MBTA’s assumptions about how much money it had to spend.

Both Mares and Matsueda mentioned a long-running claim among transit advocates that old Big Dig-related projects continue to place a heavy burden on the MBTA.

The MBTA took on $1.8 billion in projects to offset the negative environmental impact of the Big Dig. While some of those costs have since been assumed by the Department of Transportation, the remaining debt has long served as a rallying cry for advocates.

Mares noted an amendment to the House budget by Representative Denise Provost that would add $125 million in contract assistance to pay for the cost of lingering Big Dig projects. Mares said this would “help the MBTA get on more stable financial footing going forward.”

However, MBTA Panel report states that those payments were on track to decrease significantly over the next few years while the T’s overall budget shortfall continues to balloon.

Representative Evandro Carvalho, who recently was elected the chair of the Boston coalition within the Massachusetts legislature, said he was looking forward to a hearing on April 27 in which the MBTA Panel would discuss their findings with the legislature’s joint transportation committee.

“We’re looking at the whole system to see how it should work,” he said. He clarified that fare increases, attempts to crack down on fare evasion, and ideas to perhaps change the current fare system – such as a pay-by-distance system like the kind used in Washington, DC – are all on the table for him at this point.

The House Ways and Means budget is the second step in the state’s budgeting process, which began with the release of the Governor’s budget proposal in early March. The next step will be debate and a vote on the Committee’s proposal on the House floor.

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