T board blesses $500m transfer for capital programs
Key investments funded but not low-income fare program
THE BOARD of the MBTA on Thursday endorsed a staff plan to transfer $500 million from the transit authority’s operating budget to its capital budget to move forward on a number of projects, but no money was set aside for testing a low-income fare program.
Board members earlier had raised concerns about transferring the $500 million at a time when large shortfalls in the operating budget are looming on the horizon. But MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak assured them on Thursday that there is enough money in the operating budget to get through the remainder of the current fiscal year and the next one. After that, operating and capital budget shortfalls are expected.
The T has been balancing its operating budget using some $2 billion in federal aid the agency has received, which has allowed the agency to squirrel away some $500 million. Rather than hold the money in reserve for when the federal aid runs out, Poftak urged the board to let him spend it on a number of high-priority capital projects and other priorities. The board on Thursday endorsed the plan in principle.
Poftak said the $500 million would go for one-time projects that would not require recurring expenditures by the transit authority.
The plan sets aside $7 million for the design of a new Newton commuter rail station, $11 million for tearing down a decrepit MBTA garage in Lynn, $4 million to complete the construction of a second track on the Franklin commuter rail line, and a total of $20 million for pandemic pay for T workers, employee recruitment and retention efforts, and human resources staffing.
Some of the initiatives are vague, with one provision calling for spending $40 million on “real estate opportunities.”
The biggest chunk of the money — $145 million — would be set aside to provide the matching state funds needed to qualify for federal grant programs that are expected to roll out over the next six years.
During the public comment part of the board meeting, transit advocates, as they have at past meetings, pressed the board to adopt a low-income fare initiative, which would offer discounted fares to low-income riders. Several of the advocates said a portion of the $500 million should be used for the so-called means-tested fare initiative.
The previous MBTA board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, had directed T staff to come up with two approaches to so-called means-tested fares by October, but the new board has shown little interest in the topic. Board chair Betsy Taylor said on Thursday she has asked T staff to brief the board on low-income fares at the February meeting.
Tom Ryan, a senior advisor at the business group A Better City, urged the T to use a portion of the $500 million to launch a low-income fare pilot. He recommended drawing $55 million from the $145 million the T has set aside to provide matching funds for upcoming federal grant programs.The T is currently vetting a series of fare reductions and changes — many of them targeted at low-income riders — that would cost the agency between $1.5 million and $1.9 million a year.
Internally at the T there is little appetite for doing away with fares entirely. There is more support for targeting discounts to those who need them rather than making the T free to everyone.