Baker proposes T funding hike

One lawmaker calls spending boost crazy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE TAXPAYERS WILL further subsidize the struggling MBTA under Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal, which calls for a $64.5 million increase in funding for the agency, an investment that one top House lawmaker and MBTA critic called “kind of crazy.”

The increase, part of a spending bill that will be fully unveiled on Wednesday, would bring total state operating support to the MBTA to $1.172 billion, according to the Baker administration. Total state transportation funding would rise 20 percent under Baker’s fiscal 2016 budget, which calls for a snow and ice budget of $72 million, or close to the five-year average level of spending.

The governor is also recommending increases in the state’s two big local aid accounts and does not plan tax increases or withdrawals from state reserve funds to pay for the major investments. Asked how he will pay for them, Baker told reporters Tuesday “we’ll have a lot more to say about all of this tomorrow.”

The governor is proposing the funding increase while a special panel he appointed examines the MBTA’s governance, financing, and operations in the wake of system-wide performance problems that crippled service during recent snowstorms. In a statement, Baker warned that the added investment “will not be a blank check.” He told reporters Tuesday afternoon that his investment plan also calls for a “weather resiliency fund” aimed at ensuring that MBTA operations run much more smoothly next winter.

Starting in fiscal year 2014, the Legislature began sending the T additional funding, which reached $135 million in the fiscal 2015 budget. Baker and the Legislature reduced that amount to roughly $122 million to help close a $768 million state budget gap. His budget would increase it to $187 million. The amount is about $15 million less than the $202 million that Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Rafael Mares said the MBTA was due to receive next year, according to the 2013 transportation financing law.

“It’s really cutting the T’s budget,” Mares said. Mares said the T assumed it would receive $202 million in developing its budget, and cautioned that the budget picture for the T could vary depending on how the state is calculating the use of the MBTA’s own revenues.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo signaled the T’s approval of Baker’s plan. “We welcome Gov. Baker’s continued support of public transportation and appreciate the increase his recent budget proposal provides to the MBTA for much needed repairs and service improvements,” he said.

Others are questioning pouring more money into the authority.

“Giving the T more money right now is kind of crazy. I think they have to begin to demonstrate that they can use that money effectively and judiciously. I’ve been a real critic of the T for a long time. This is an organization that watched a parking garage fail in my district. It was condemned. There’s no maintenance plan,” said House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano. “I’m not surprised that rolling stock is sidelined at the first storm because there seems to be no one looking at long-term maintenance or any maintenance. So until we can figure out what’s going on over there and until we can make a pretty accurate assessment of where the problems are I think it might be a little crazy to be spending money.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he wanted to hear the recommendations of the governor’s MBTA’s task force, which are due by the end of March, before committing to any additional funding for the MBTA. DeLeo said the House may want to hold additional hearings.

“First of all, I want to see what exactly is said by the members of his commission which he set forth,” DeLeo said.

Raising questions about the T’s long-term maintenance planning and customer communication, DeLeo said not all of the MBTA’s problems are financial.

“Everything may be fine and dandy and this just might be due to some of the severe weather, but we’ve had some severe weather before here in Boston and I don’t remember us ever closing it the number of times that we did for this storm,” DeLeo said.

Transportation Committee Senate Chairman Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat, said he had only read about the funding proposal in the newspaper, and said he hopes policymakers can arrive at a “real number” about transportation needs.

“The T needs money,” McGee said, describing the system as experiencing “a crisis financially.”

Appearing on WBZ radio’s Nightside program with Dan Rea Monday, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she wanted to ensure that MassDOT is spending money on worthwhile capital projects before determining whether more money for transportation is needed.

“Do we really need to do all these things that are in the five-year plan? Could some of them get cancelled or postponed so that we can make more money just to maintain the system in better condition?” Pollack asked.

Agreeing with a caller that transit systems overseas are more modern, Pollack said transit systems in Europe and Japan receive more government financing and are more expensive to ride.

“They tend to charge more per trip than we do in this country. So we may need to do some debating among ourselves about if we want a very modern 21st century system, where’s the money going to come from,” Pollack said.

“Hey, if it’s a better hamburger, I’ll pay more,” said the caller, identified as Bruce from Chestnut Hill.

“Well that’s good to hear because I think that that may be one of the things that we’re going to have to do,” said Pollack, who said the failures of the system had a cost on people’s time. She said the harsh winter may have “hastened the day of reckoning for the T.”

Describing the MBTA’s commuter rail service as a “disaster,” Pollack said she plans to change the state’s approach to transportation.

“Our job in this administration is really to stop kicking that can and figure out what we need to do and get it done,” said Pollack, agreeing with the host that “other people have kicked the can down the road.”

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
The Baker administration said it would increase by $109 million overall transportation funding, including an additional $44.8 million to MassDOT.

Matt Murphy contributed reporting.