T’s new mantra: ‘Cut to invest’

T’s new mantra: ‘Cut to invest’

Officials call for halting weekend commuter rail, limiting The RIDE

STATE TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK coined a new term on Monday to summarize the Baker administration’s budget philosophy for the MBTA: “Cut to invest.”

In a briefing with reporters, Pollack said the T is determined to eliminate its structural operating deficit in the coming fiscal year and plow state aid that would normally be used to pay off the shortfall into capital projects that would improve service at the transit agency.

But to close an estimated fiscal 2018 deficit of $42 million and pay for $7 million in new management hires, the MBTA is proposing to halt all weekend commuter rail service for at least a year, to end non-required service for disabled riders for at least a year, and to implement a host of privatization and revenue-raising initiatives. T officials said their proposals represented a starting point for discussion, but Pollack said some of them would have to be implemented.

Reaction to the plan at a meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board was generally negative.  Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns in the T service area, said discontinuing commuter rail service on weekends is a bad idea. “My members believe this is a terrible mistake,” he said.

Scores of union members condemned the T’s proposal to privatize or use the threat of privatization to wring cost savings out of six MBTA bus repair garages. Timothy King, a union official and a member of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, testified against the T’s privatization plans. And Brian Lang, a union official and member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, indicated he opposes the T’s budget-balancing plan. “At this point I would not vote for this as a budget,” he said.

During the Patrick administration, state leaders often said “reform before revenue” when talking about the T’s finances, meaning the agency needed to first get its fiscal house in order before seeking additional state funding. Pollack and T officials made clear on Monday that there is no plan to seek additional state revenue from the Legislature. Instead, they said, the T will come up with money to fund capital and service improvements by cutting spending elsewhere at the agency.

Pollack cited as an example the decision to offer paratransit riders access to Uber and Lyft services. Using Uber and Lyft costs the T about $9 per ride compared to the $40 cost of regular RIDE service. But nearly all of the savings so far have been eaten up by customers increasing the number of trips they are taking with Uber and Lyft. Pollack said she liked that tradeoff. “That is what we mean by cut to invest,” she said.

T officials are hoping to balance the agency’s operating budget for the next four years, holding spending growth over that period to just 1.8 percent. The hope is that by keeping the operating budget in check, more of the funds flowing to the T can be used for service and equipment improvements.

“No one is trying to build up a giant surplus. Nobody is trying to take money away from the T. The only tradeoff on the table is operating dollars saved go to capital,” she said. “The choices are difficult, but the one lesson I’ve learned as secretary is setting priorities.”

T officials have spent the last 18 months trimming costs and trying to reform the agency. They cut 211 corporate headquarters positions, privatized cash-handling and warehouse activities, and negotiated wage concessions from the Carmen’s Union in return for job protections. But to balance the fiscal 2018 budget will require some tough decisions. Here are the proposals they put on the table:

  • Halt weekend commuter rail service starting July 1 for a savings of $10 million. T officials say they typically run 8,000 commuter rail trips on Saturdays and 3,000 on Sundays. The passengers represent one-fifth of 1 percent of commuter rail riders, T officials said. As a result, the T’s weekend subsidy for commuter rail is $34 per trip, compared to $5 per trip on weekdays. One advantage of shutting down weekend service over the next year is that some lines will have to be shut down on weekends anyway for the installation of equipment to avoid train collissions.
  • End paratransit trips that aren’t legally required beyond the Americans with Disabilty Act service area, for a savings of $7 million. The T is required to offer service within a three-quarter-mile radius of the agency’s fixed-route services, but currently goes beyond that into communities such as Dover, Medfield, Middleton, and Topsfield. T officials estimate 210,000 trips per year extend outside the ADA-required service area.
  • Privatize T bus maintenance at the Lynn, Fellsway, Quincy, and Arborway garages for a savings of $11.1 million and privatize or use the threat of privatization to wring $10.2 million in saving from the Everett and Cabot garages.
  • Install 700 more TV monitors in stations to boost ad revenues $3 million and push Keolis to follow through on more aggressive fare collection efforts expected to yield $1 million to the T.
  • Reposition 120 temporary, in-station customer service agents as bus operators and hire a private firm to provide the service. Ninety full-time customer service agents would not be affected.
Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The MBTA expects to close out its current fiscal year with a $50 million operating deficit, and will use a portion of the $187 million the state provides the transit agency each year to cover the shortfall. In the coming fiscal year, however, the T wants to direct the entire $187 million into backlogged capital projects.

In addition to the $187 million appropriation, the T also receives a penny of the state sales tax and all fare and other revenue that it generates on its own. In fiscal 2018, T officials are forecasting $1.95 billion in revenues to offset operating expenses of nearly $1.5 billion and debt service of $451 million.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    According to the MBTA Advisory Board’s website, its mission “is to provide public oversight of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority as well as technical assistance and information on behalf of the 175 community members of the Advisory Board and the transit riding public” but Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board made short shrift of the MBTA Advisory Board’s objections to halting weekend commuter rail service. What’s really going on here? Straightening out the MBTA’s finances or simply putting the screws to the cities and towns in the MBTA’s service area?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What’s unbelievable is just a few weeks ago the state legislature voted judges, constitutional officers and itself $18 million in raises while the MBTA is looking to halt weekend commuter rail service to save $10 million or about half the cost of those raises. Everybody needs to give those raises back…including Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Give those raises back!!!!!!

  • Mhmjjj2012

    “In fiscal 2018, T officials are forecasting $1.95 billion in revenues to offset operating expenses of nearly $1.5 billion and debt service of $451 million.” That means almost 25% of the MBTA’s expenses is for debt. That seems like a lot especially when there’s been so much deferred maintenance and failure to modernize.