RTAs strike back at T-only bailouts

State lawmakers outside Greater Boston, backed up by increasingly irate transit riders in their districts, are exerting a newfound assertiveness so they can get more of the state dollars that they say should be coming to them. 

The 2012 bailout signals the end of the line for MBTA budget fixes that come at the expense of regional mass transit. The “we’ll get to you later approach” and the anger now pushing back against that mindset has finally gotten through to the Legislature, according to Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “The tolerance for being patient and quiet has essentially disappeared,” said Brennan.

Saving the MBTA from fiscal calamity has become a regular exercise for the Legislature, with three separate lifelines tossed to the authority in more than a decade. In the current bailout, the House and Senate have voted to send the MBTA $49 million to plug its remaining budget gap. Regional transit authorities will see $7 million.

“There is a feeling among legislators outside the MBTA area that they’re also having these problems and the light is shining on the T and they are feeling a little bit left out,” said Cyndi Roy, communications director for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

The regional transit authorities rely on the state for nearly 40 percent of their operating funding and Washington for another 25 percent. The systems receive their state funding in arrears and borrow money to pay for current operations until those funds are received. Fare revenues make up less than 15 percent of their operating budgets. The funds that the RTAs will receive will go a long way to help stave off major problems at many of the regional systems this year.

The funds will be divided proportionally between the 15 systems, based on the amount of state assistance they currently receive. The largest regional system, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, is trying to plug a projected $1.8 million hole. The PVTA’s allocation of the $7 million will cover that fiscal 2013 deficit, but little else. The authority also faces deficits in 2014 and 2015, according to Mary MacInnes, the system’s administrator.

Lawmakers outside Greater Boston stress that they don’t begrudge the MBTA its share of state dollars, but they don’t intend to take a back seat to the T anymore. “We tend to be Boston-centric because it’s the largest city and it’s so dominant in our lives here in Massachusetts,” said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat. “Those of us in the rural and suburban areas, we are going to keep pressing for our fair share of the money.”

Sen. Gale Candaras, a Wilbraham Democrat, helped to lead the push to set up a Springfield-style control board to run the MBTA. Candaras said Wednesday that unless there were “extraordinary improvements at the T,” she plans to introduce a new control board bill next year. “We’re not going to forgo pursuing a mechanism, be it a control board or some other extraordinary relief to achieve fiscal stability,” she said.

To come up with the control board plan, Candaras said she and her staff started with the 2004 legislation that created the Springfield control board when that city was in dire fiscal straits. “Where it said ‘Springfield,’ we put in ‘MBTA’ to see what that looked like, and we just kept writing,” she said.

MassDOT did not support the bill. “This isn’t an issue of fiscal mismanagement at the T,” said Roy.

Yet Candaras argued that if the Massachusetts made investments in western Massachusetts comparable to the projects like the estimated $1.3 billion MBTA’s Green Line expansion to Somerville and West Medford, which she termed “unaffordable,” the region could put “thousands of people to work.”

“If that [Green Line] investment were made here on the I-91 corridor, with [Bradley International] airport 30 minutes away, it would be a very different world here,” Candaras said.

The 2009 transportation reforms were supposed to improve the financial picture for the regional transit authorities. The MBTA received a $160 million annual appropriation and RTAs, $15 million. Instead of receiving additional assistance for the past three years, however, MassDOT has level-funded the regional transit authorities at $59 million, the regional transit heads said. In fiscal 2012, the regional system received $44 million through the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund and $15 million in through the Commonwealth Transportation Fund. The systems were also to be forward funded like the MBTA, which currently receives a penny of the state sales tax. But that hasn’t happened yet either.

Gary Sheppard, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s administrator said that legislators representing regional authorities were “unaware” that they wouldn’t be getting the additional money. “They honestly felt that we were going to get $15 million more on top of the $59 million.” Roy said that she has heard those “interpretations,” but added that she was not in a position to comment.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Transit riders and union members from Fall River, New Bedford, Springfield, and Boston also brought their protests to the State House recently, demanding that lawmakers “fix it, fund it, make it fair,” a slogan that’s come to define the idea that the MBTA isn’t the only transit system with budget problems and service issues.  We want “to make sure that RTA funding that’s on the table, stays on the table,” said Lee Matsueda of the T Riders Union.

“I’m loathe to buy into this ‘us versus them’ conversation because there is an acknowledgement here at the top that everybody needs additional resources,” said Roy. “To have an economy that’s growing across across the Commonwealth, we need to fund adequately our entire public transit system.”