Lawmakers back extension of existing MBTA control board

Unable to agree on new panel, they support 1-year extension

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

HOUSE AND SENATE leaders reached an agreement Thursday to keep the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board in place for another year and to scrap a planned increase in road and bridge maintenance funding, effectively sealing the fate of the annual reimbursement program.

After weeks of disagreement between the two branches, the Senate adopted what one top lawmaker called a “compromise” that will direct $200 million toward the Chapter 90 program next fiscal year and will extend the about-to-expire board tasked with overseeing and managing the T until June 30, 2021.

Settling on a $200 million allocation toward road repairs represents a retreat from the $300 million that both the House and Senate had already approved in earlier legislation, reducing the funding level to where it has remained almost every single year for the past decade.

During a Thursday session where the Senate agreed to the compromise bill (H 4803), Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore said he was “dismayed” to bring forward the lower amount of funding but felt it was important to reach a compromise quickly because of the “urgency of this matter.”

Cities and towns each year seek clearance on the funding by spring and this year talks spilled into summer.

“While I commit to my colleagues in this chamber to continue to work to ensure we’re spending appropriate amounts of money — and amounts of money we can spend without raising revenue — as I stated before, I think we can’t delay any longer,” Boncore said on the Senate floor. “We’ve asked municipalities to put off contracts for too long. This is far later than we’ve ever done a Chapter 90 bond authorization since I’ve been the chairman.”

Gov. Charlie Baker originally proposed funding the Chapter 90 program at $200 million next year. In March, the House bumped the amount up to $300 million as part of its version of Baker’s multi-year $18 billion transportation bond bill. The Senate did not act on the matter until June, when it also approved $300 million in a separate bill.

However, House leaders began to cast doubt over the state’s ability to afford the additional bonding amid a pandemic-fueled recession without a package of tax and fee hikes they approved — hikes that the Senate has left untouched for months.

“We increased Chapter 90 at that point in time, but we had a way to pay for it,” Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said earlier this month. “We had mechanisms to pay for it. We’re in the midst of dealing with potentially $6 to $8 billion dollars in a shortfall of revenue for (fiscal year) 2021, so it’s a little perplexing to figure out how we’re going to be doing that and raising Chapter 90 without using the revenue sources that have been put out there by the House.”

House leaders appeared to be prodding the Senate to join them in passing a major tax package, and it’s unclear whether the Senate’s retreat on Chapter 90 funding means that branch has given up on tax-raising initiatives to fund transportation this year.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said his caucus supports $300 million for the program and said the House had already approved hundreds of millions of dollars more in other bond authorizations, such as a more than $1 billion climate resiliency program, that have not been scaled back amid the current economic climate.

“The members of this chamber unanimously endorsed the proposal that was brought forth by (Boncore) with regard to $300 million for this appropriation, and we did so with an understanding of the urgency that he referred to but also the importance of that funding to provide a stimulus for our economy at a time when it is urgently needed,” he said.

The compromise reached Thursday also stabilizes uncertainty surrounding the future of MBTA oversight, at least for another year.

The FMCB, which since its formation in 2015 has conducted dozens of public meetings every year to discuss and approve T budgets and projects, will expire on June 30 under current state law.

Without legislative agreement to extend or replace the board, control would revert to the Department of Transportation Board of Directors on July 1.

Lawmakers at first took different positions on how to handle the board. As part of its March tax bill, the House approved extending the FMCB another three to five years and adding seats for the city of Boston and another municipality in the T’s service area.

A Senate bill approved this month would have created a brand-new, seven-seat MBTA Board of Directors with the state transportation secretary and someone appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board watchdog group serving as members.

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
“We will have to continue to work on that,” Boncore said. “I am committed to seeing through and working out a compromise between the House and Senate over the next year because that extension will expire on June 30, 2021.”

The new bill does not add any seats to the FMCB, but keeps it in place one additional year. It will still need to earn Gov. Charlie Baker’s approval before the board is extended, and Baker previously recommended a seven-member new board similar to the Senate’s original proposal.