Never mind the red ink: Team Trans spreads the good news

If the audience at yesterday’s Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs breakfast forum were the chanting types, the refrain would have been: Go, team, go! Duly noted was the novelty of having the titans of the state’s transportation agencies breaking bread together.

The MBTA’s Dan Grabauskas, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority’s Alan LeBovidge, and MassHighway’s Luisa Paiewonsky appeared at Boston Marriott Copley Place to discuss transportation policy. Massport’s Director of Maritime Mike Leone stood in for Massport CEO Thomas Kinton. Paiewonsky went so far as to call the gathering “unusual.”

The Patrick administration has taken on the unenviable mission of getting the rivalry-plagued agencies to play nicely in the Mobility Compact sandbox — the year-old effort, much touted at the breakfast, to get the departments talking and working more broadly among themselves. (MassTrans, the proposal to bring state transportation agencies and authorities under one roof, is still an idea in search of support.)

The participants dialed up the good news. The Turnpike now makes Fast Lane transponders more widely available at registry offices. (Even as the administration begins work on legislation, slotted for January, on eliminating the authority and restructuring its debt.) It’s also full steam ahead on the planned I-93 Andover interchange for MassHighway. Logan International Airport, operated by Massport, has recovered from the effects of 9/11. MBTA ridership has reached a historic high. Grabauskas, in particular, brought along a laundry list of recent accomplishments: Lowest crime rate in 10 years. WiFi to be widely deployed on commuter rail. New Blue Line cars.

“Kind of wish I worked at the T, it sounds so good,” joked LeBovidge.

A pity party it was not.

That’s surprising given the “wobbly” finances of the T and the Turnpike, as Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen described them, and the state’s economic crisis. Cohen and others emphasized for the umpteenth time that the financial challenges of both agencies can be laid at the door of forces now way beyond their control, namely the costs of the Big Dig for the Turnpike and the failure of the forward funding, one penny of the sales tax dedicated to the T, to prop up the MBTA.

Cheerleading aside, the T continues to be the state’s leading transportation basket case. No one has managed to snatch the authority out of its financial free fall. The authority’s board of directors recently approved a fiscal 2009 supplemental budget that features a nearly empty deficiency fund (less than $1 million) and a capital maintenance fund that’s also down to the dregs. The cost of the recent arbitration settlement with the Carmen’s Union, the T’s largest, forces the authority to spend $53 million on back pay for those workers.

MBTA parking lot rates go up $2 next month, which won’t even begin to offset the expected $100 million structural deficit going into fiscal 2010, Grabauskas said after the Chamber breakfast. Other attempts at whack-a-mole financing — that is, shifting some costs to other agencies, such as having Massport increase contributions to pay for the Silver Line and having MassHighway taking over bridge inspections from the T (as well the turnpike) — are unlikely to make a big dent.

Ferdinand Alvaro, the newest member of the MBTA’s board of directors and current holder of the board seat reserved for an administration and finance expert, barely contained his disbelief at last week’s board meeting. “The financial model under which this agency is operating is not a sustainable model,” said Alvaro, a partner in the Boston office of the international law firm Adorno & Yoss.

A masterfully diplomatic statement indeed.

To drive his point home, Alavro added that he doesn’t see any concentrated effort to tackle the financial crisis facing the authority. Cohen, who also chairs the board of directors, countered that the MBTA had taken some steps to reduce costs “appropriately.” He also noted that the board had never established a subcommittee to look at the T’s finances and asked for interested board members to volunteer for the duty so that “we can start to bring more focus to this.” (By contrast, the authority’s advisory board, its public oversight and technical assistance arm, does have such a group.)

Let’s get this straight. The board of directors of the fifth largest mass transit agency in the United States, you know, the one with the biggest debt burden, has never formed a subcommittee to get a grip on this issue?

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Fascinating.

So the $8 billion question for Team Trans going forward is: What effect can a financial subcommittee of board of directors can possibly have on the T’s long-standing and well-documented problems now, smack dab in the middle of a wider economic calamity? Inquiring minds want to know.