MBTA nearing its day of reckoning

As federal funds dry up, spending far exceeding revenue

A LITTLE OVER a year ago, US Rep. Stephen Lynch and the state’s congressional delegation hammered away at the MBTA for implementing a series of cuts designed to save money and bring service levels more in line with the COVID-reduced ridership.

“That doesn’t work for us,” said Lynch, who insisted the T should use the unprecedented levels of federal aid Congress had appropriated to maintain service and staffing levels.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak quickly came in line, promising to restore service to pre-COVID levels and scratch plans to do away with the jobs of 40 conductors who had little to do on empty trains.

That decision to keep on spending is being put to the test as the federal aid that sustained the MBTA is about to run out.

The MBTA board of directors on Thursday passed a $2.5 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that achieves balance with what appears to be the last of the federal aid. The T is forecasting a deficit in fiscal 2024 of $236 million and much higher amounts in out years.

Brian Kane, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, raised concerns at the board’s virtual meeting about the transit authority’s spending growth. He said spending is growing at a 5.3 percent clip but revenue isn’t growing anywhere near that level.

He said the headcount of the T is at a 10-year high and growing and its budget for materials, supplies, and service is running at a clip of $1 million a day.

“We have concerns about the sustainability of spending,” said Kane, who represents the municipalities in the MBTA service area.

He urged the T board to slow the growth in spending and press for additional subsidies.

Kane applauded the T board for raising questions and postponing action last month on a proposal to spend $102 million to hire a company that would in turn hire 200 Transit Ambassadors to help riders at train stations.

His presentation referred to many of the service cuts the T considered in late 2020 and early 2021, including ending subway service at midnight, eliminating weekend commuter rail service, scrapping all ferry service, and extending wait times for paratransit service.

Kane put in blunt terms what the T board has been reluctant to talk about – that spending needs to be reduced and subsidy levels need to increase as the federal aid dries up.

“I think it’s obvious increased subsidies are needed going forward,” he said, urging the board to use its “bully pulpit” to press for more revenue.

Jamey Tesler, the secretary of transportation and a member of the T board, showed little interest in asking for additional subsidies, pointing out that it’s hard to know what will happen in the coming year with ridership, inflation, fuel prices, and commuting patterns.

“We are in an environment of uncertainty,” he said.

“I don’t envy you your choices,” Kane said.