More talk of new revenues as T approves budget

Board trying to reach behind-the-scenes consensus on taxes

THE MBTA OVERSIGHT BOARD unanimously approved a $2.1 billion budget for fiscal 2020 on Monday, but only after two members and the head of the transit authority’s advisory board highlighted what they said was a need for more revenues.

Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, got the revenue discussion rolling by calling for a 1 percent increase in the deeds excise tax. He said the increase, which is higher than what Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed, would provide enough money to funnel $140 million annually to the MBTA and $60 million to regional transit authorities.

Regan said the T won’t have sufficient operating funds in the near future without an increase in revenue.  “You’re building the Green Line to Somerville, but you won’t be able to operate it,” Regan told the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

Control board members Brian Lang and Monica Tibbits-Nutt said they welcomed Regan’s call for a revenue discussion, but the other members of the control board said little. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who sits in on control board meetings, said nothing.

Lang and Tibbits-Nutt, who raised the need for new revenues at previous meetings, both said they were concerned that, after passage of the T budget and the 5.8 percent fare increase it contains, the debate over new revenues could go cold.

“My concern is that once we get through talking about our fare increase and the budget, that discussion [about new revenues], that debate ends,” Lang said after the meeting. “We have to find a way to keep that discussion going in the public and, quite frankly, to keep pressure on the bodies that could actually make some changes that could change people’s behavior when it comes to using cars, driving people toward public transportation.”

Control board members have been trying to reach consensus on a letter endorsing the need for new revenues. Lang seemed optimistic that a joint statement would be released in the next couple weeks. All the board members were appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, who says he sees no need for additional revenues.

“People know my position on this stuff. I’ve been very clear. I think it’s a little bit more powerful if the whole board comes out with a statement,” Lang said.

“Taxes is not a dirty word,” he added during the control board meeting, noting that several revenue-raising measures (gas tax, congestion tolling, and fees on ride-hailing apps) can be used both to raise money for the T and incentivize people to stop driving their cars so much.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said on Monday that the House budget due out this week will not include any major new revenue proposals. He said he expected action later this year on revenue measures.

The T budget for fiscal 2020 was approved fairly quickly, with the agency opting to use $36.5 million of a $187 million legislative appropriation to balance the budget. The remainder of the legislative appropriation would go to the T’s capital spending plan.

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Bruce Mohl

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About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The T tinkered around with the final spending a bit, mostly to address concerns the agency is not doing enough to make improvements that customers will notice immediately. The increases included $1.4 million for six new Green Line vehicle operators, $3 million more for station and facilities cleaning, and $3.5 million more to fill transit authority positions that have been vacant for some time.

Brian Shortsleeve said he was concerned that operating expenses are projected to grow 2.5 percent, nearly twice the level of the last four years. He warned that assumptions about overtime reductions and own-source revenue (primarily advertising, parking, and real estate) could be off and the deficit will balloon quickly.

“I have a lot of concern about own-source revenue,” Tibbits-Nutt said.