Pollack: “Hemorrhaging” MBTA needs tourniquet

Transportation secretary says without state help, T faces $187 million gap

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE MBTA HAS an estimated 535 employees on its debt-funded capital budget and without state budget help will run a $187 million deficit next fiscal year, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told lawmakers Tuesday.

Pollack told lawmakers the $187 million request in Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal would help the T prepare for next winter and it would be consistent with the 2013 law that raised the gas tax 3 cents per gallon, required the transit system to increase its own revenues and anticipated rising amounts of additional state funding.

“I actually don’t deny that it’s a Band-Aid. It’s not a permanent solution,” Pollack told members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees at Methuen High School. “One could argue it’s more of a tourniquet. The T’s hemorrhaging and we’ve got to stop the bleeding before we can fix it. We need to fix the T.”

The additional state assistance would not be enough to transfer employees from the capital to the operating budget, a move that would cost an estimated $65 million, according to Interim MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola.

Pollack said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which includes smaller airports and the Registry of Motor Vehicles in addition to roads and railways, plans to make a larger draw from a gas-tax financed fund and would complete the three-year transition of all employees and operating expenses, such as rent, off of the capital budget.

The MBTA’s system of subways, trolleys and commuter rail was pounded by snow and cold, causing equipment failures that led to service being suspended at times and reduced at others.

DePaola said the T will need to contract snow removers, as is the practice at the Highway Division, and purchase machines specifically designed to remove snow and ice from subway tracks.

Within MassDOT, Pollack said she will aim to improve coordination between human resources, legal and procurement offices that were consolidated as part of the 2009 reform law. Pollack told the News Service she was not sure whether a more centralized approach to those functions would produce savings, but she said it would allow the agencies to focus on their core goals of providing transportation service.

Pollack also wants to ratchet up the amount budgeted for MassDOT’s snow and ice removal costs so that it comes closer to the five-year average annual expenditure of $105 million. The secretary would increase the budgeted amount to $55.4 million, up from about $48 million, and add anticipated federal emergency dollars for a total of $72 million available for clearing snow and ice next year.

Seeking some “flexibility” in a tight budget, Pollack also asked for the ability to transfer money from one MassDOT line item to another.

Rep. Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat, questioned whether after such a harsh winter, the MBTA is prepared for other non-snow events that could challenge the system.

DePaola said the T will model an event on the scale of Hurricane Sandy and look at what pieces of the transit infrastructure would be threatened by a tidal surge. When the super-storm hit New York City in 2012, it knocked out some subway service.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

None of the House and Senate Ways and Means members who attended the discussion of the MBTA have a subway station in their district – though Reps. Paul Brodeur, a Melrose Democrat, and Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat, have Red and Orange line stations right outside their district lines.

A task force appointed by Baker to examine the MBTA’s operations, finances and governance is expected to publicly report its findings next week.