Massport and the T

The Massachusetts Port Authority is exploring ways to shoulder some of the MBTA’s financial burden (and increase mass transit use at Logan) , but the agency is moving slowly because federal law generally bars an airport agency from using its funds for anything other than airport operations.

Massport last month sent separate letters to the Federal Aviation Administration asking for guidance on whether it can pick up the cost of the T’s commuter ferry subsidies and on how far it can go in subsidizing Silver Line service to and from the airport. The federal agency hasn’t responded yet, but Massport is nevertheless pushing ahead with a pilot project this summer that would promote greater use of mass transit at the airport, including an initiative that would let travelers arriving at Logan Airport hop on the T’s Silver Line for free. Massport would cover any losses incurred by the T.

The moves come at a time when the T is raising fares an average of 23 percent and paring back service to cope with a projected deficit of $159 million in fiscal 2013. Another sizeable deficit is forecast for the following year. Massport has helped the T before. In 2005, it provided $13 million for eight Silver Line buses. But the Patrick administration, and many lawmakers on Beacon Hill, want the relatively flush Massport to do more.

Records obtained from Massport under the Public Records Law indicate the agency is moving cautiously. Federal aviation law says airport revenue can only be used for airport operations, according to a legal analysis provided in December to a group of Massport and T officials working on ways to ease the T’s cost burden. Massport has some additional leeway since it was created in 1956, 26 years before Congress passed legislation restricting the use of airport funds. As a result, Massport is allowed to use a portion of its revenues for some non-airport uses, but only those, like the operation of the port of Boston, that were established before 1982.

Massport was granted the authority to operate ferries in 1974, but it has never done so. In its letter to the FAA, Massport asked whether it can still use airport revenues to support a passenger ferry business . Massport is proposing to fund or take over operation of the commuter ferries, which ran a deficit of $3.9 million last year.

Regarding the Silver Line, which runs between South Station and the airport, Massport is seeking permission to provide more money to the T for the upkeep of the buses that operate on the line. Massport also wants to promote more transit use at the airport using advertising, better signage (countdown-to-arrival signs are now up and running), 15 new “transit ambassadors,” and free access to the Silver Line.

Even without FAA approval, Massport intends to test the concept for three months starting June 1. State Transportation Secretary Richard Davey says offering free access to the Silver Line should allow the buses to cover their routes much faster given that passengers can board at all bus doors and out-of-town visitors without Charlie Cards won’t have to take up time paying fares as they board.

More than 81,000 people boarded Silver Line buses at the airport during the June-September period last year. Over the entire year, the Silver Line collected $1 million in fares at the airport, of which Massport kept 76 percent and the T pocketed 24 percent, according to Massport’s letter to the FAA. Massport is proposing to cover any losses incurred by the T as a result of eliminating the Silver Line fare at the airport.

But free access to the Silver Line could have some unintended consequences. It will definitely encourage more people to hop on the Silver Line buses, but it could also put a dent in the number of people taking shuttle buses to the airport Blue Line T stop, where they will have to pay to board the trains. Any shift in traffic could overload the Silver Line buses and drive up T losses.

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.

Davey said he plans to monitor any traffic shifts closely, but he thinks relatively few passengers will shift from the Blue to the Silver Line to avoid the fare. He predicted passengers going to destinations along the Blue and Green Lines will continue to use the Blue Line at Logan.

Overall, Davey said, the goal of the mass transit push at the airport is to reduce the number of vehicle trips to and from Logan. Davey said Logan is currently one of the top five destinations in the state for single-occupancy vehicle trips. (The other four are all shopping malls, he said.) Officials at Logan saw the problem from a slightly different perspective during this school vacation week. All week long the airport’s parking lots have been filled to capacity.