Hurdles face ferry transfer plan

Takeover of operation by Massport needs FAA approval

In addition to a cool reaction from a top Patrick administration official, a key aspect of the House’s plan to rescue the MBTA from its fiscal crisis is getting a measured response from the agency directly involved: Massport.

Ten days ago, House members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee advanced a bill requiring the Massachusetts Port Authority to take over MBTA ferry operations and purchase T parking lots and piers in Hingham and Quincy.

The House plan calls on Massport to send $18.5 million to the MBTA as part of plans to close the T’s fiscal 2013 budget deficit and anticipated red ink the year after as well without adding to fare hikes averaging 23 percent and scheduled to take effect this summer. House leaders say their plan will enable the state to steer surplus auto inspection revenues to struggling regional transit authorities and not just to the MBTA.

A Massport spokesman said May 10 that taking over the ferries would require Federal Aviation Administration approval, but said the authority would withhold further comment on the bill until it had reviewed it.

Reached Thursday, spokesman Matt Brelis didn’t have much more to add. Due to interest from many people in having the authority run the ferry system, authority officials in March wrote to the FAA to ask whether it was permissible to use aviation revenues for ferry operations, he said. Massport is still waiting to hear from the FAA. The FAA’s Jim Peters said they’re still reviewing the request.

Brelis declined to say whether the agency is for or against the proposal, noting only that Massport has worked “to support the state’s infrastructure in any way it can in a legally and financially responsible way and will continue to do so.” Brelis mentioned as examples the transfer of the Tobin Bridge from Massport to the state Department of Transportation, which was approved by the FAA, and the authority’s acquisition of Worcester Airport.

Anticipating Massport’s concerns about the FAA, committee co-chairman Rep. William Straus said May 10 that he’d seen legal memos provided by outside counsel to Massport indicating no federal restrictions on airport revenues being used for seaport capital projects and “no federal questions whatsoever” about how the port authority uses non-airport revenues.

“Massport has a strong interest in port operations and it is a perfect match for them to become engaged in port transportation issues,” Straus said. “I think they are much better suited for this operation than the MBTA has been historically.”

The House bid to force Massport to buy T assets emerged after House leaders opted for a plan to spread surplus auto inspection revenues to transportation agencies statewide, rather than, as Gov. Deval Patrick had proposed, to send the MBTA the entire surplus to plug massive holes in that agency’s budget.

Patrick’s Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez recently told the News Service that he’s glad the committee is exploring the idea of Massport taking over ferry options, but believes it deserves consideration as part of long-term policy planning.

“I think we have concerns about it. It’s complicated,” Gonzalez said. “There are federal law issues, logistically just getting it in place in time. And we need a solution for the T now. We need a short-term solution so that we can avoid further service cuts next year. It’s already going to be a tough year.”

Gonzalez added, “We can’t count on that as a solution. We need a solution now so we can move forward and know we aren’t going to have to implement service cuts within weeks.”

Asked about finding other state funds to help regional transit authorities while at the same time rescuing the T, Gonzalez said, “I’m constantly looking for funds to tap. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of ‘em. And the amount of funds we have around . . . haven’t been nearly what we’ve needed to do what we’ve needed to do over the last few years. The concern about the RTAs is legitimate. They have real challenges also and in a lot of regions the level of service is not what people want and deserve. It’s one of the things we need to look at in the broader context.”

The committee’s plan has attracted some organizational support.

Kristina Egan, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said in a statement following its release: “Aside from the MBTA funding, the bill also provides $6.5 million to regional transit authorities that, like the MBTA, are struggling financially. This revenue is critical to people across the state who rely on public transportation to access jobs, school, workforce training, their health care providers, and even basic things like grocery shopping. The measures included in this bill would help agencies including the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority minimize proposed fare increases and service cuts in some of the most economically challenged parts of the state.”

Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, called the transfer of ferry assets a “great idea” and said the board is “fine” with the idea of using registry revenues for regional transportation.

“Transit is transit,” Regan told the News Service Monday afternoon. “While the problems at the MBTA feature a unique mix of modes, that doesn’t mean bus service at other regional transit authorities is not in need of additional resources.”

Regan said complexity alone should not be enough to shelve the ferry operations transfer. “I’m not saying it’s not complicated, but it’s important to remember that Massport already operates the port of Boston,” he said. “They already run container terminals and have huge tracts of waterfront property.”

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Asked if the ferry operations switch might fail if not incorporated into the MBTA bailout bill, Regan said he thought it might. But he cautioned, “The MBTA just can’t afford to run it.”

Matt Murphy and Mike Deehan contributed reporting.