Poftak: Federal funds may not be enough

Coming fiscal year looms as big unknown for T

THE MBTA, after balancing this fiscal year’s budget with $217 million in federal coronavirus funds,  expects to have $610 million left over to help balance next year’s budget. But General Manager Steve Poftak is saying the huge infusion of federal money may not be enough.

“I think I’m on safe ground when I say it is unlikely to fund us at the level we would wish,” Poftak said during a virtual meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday. “It is obviously a significant amount of money, but we’re going to have to go through a pretty extensive budget development process to understand just how far that money takes us.”

Part of the problem is that no one knows what’s going to happen in fiscal 2021, which starts July 1. For the last two months of fiscal 2020, the expectation is that the T will continue to limp along, serving roughly 20 percent of its normal bus riders, 8 percent of its normal subway passengers, and almost no commuter rail passengers. Total fare revenue is off 95 percent to $3 million a month.

What’s ahead is less clear. Poftak is just now forming a “transition planning group” to start thinking about how the T will operate going forward during what Gov. Charlie Baker is fond of describing as the “new normal.”

Poftak doesn’t know when and if ridership will rebound and is having difficulty building a budget. “None of us is sure exactly how that is going to unfold,” Poftak said.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the transit authority needs to remain flexible because no one knows what will happen. “This is like throwing darts after having three beers,” he said of the budget process.

T officials said they are hoping lawmakers on Beacon Hill approve legislation allowing the T to use capital funds to pay the salaries of employees working on longer-term capital projects. The T used to have that option, but the Legislature ended the practice after the T was caught using capital funds to pay the salaries of many operating employees. That move allowed the T to keep its operating budget down, while paying salaries using funds that often came with interest payments.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

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 reason the MBTA lost that ability was it abused the system,” Aiello said.

The Legislature eased its restrictions somewhat two years ago, but continued to refuse to allow the T to use bond proceeds to pay salaries. Now the T is seeking to remove that restriction, saying the move would save the T about $60 million a year in operating funds that could be used to balance the budget.