T notes: 7% increase in spending approved

MBTA may buy offshore wind power in future

THE MBTA OVERSIGHT board kept its foot on the gas Thursday, unanimously approving a 7 percent increase in spending for fiscal 2021 using $710 million in federal aid to offset a sharp downturn in fare revenue.

The $2.29 billion budget plan include no fare hikes, one key fare decrease, and the addition of 151 new safety personnel. Officials said the T could add another 311 employees to work on several key initiatives if the Legislature approves legislation that would allow the T to pay employees working on capital projects with money raised by issuing bonds.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board may be just putting off hard decisions until fiscal 2022, when the T will be confronted with a much bigger spending base but no guarantee of additional federal money to plug any revenue shortfalls.

The T’s budget assumes fare revenue will drag along at 10 percent of pre-COVID estimates for the rest of this year before slowly starting to rise between January and June of next year, hitting 60 percent of pre-COVID estimates by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2021.

The T’s capital budget is expected to rise from $1.4 billion this year to $1.75 billion next year. Debt service on money borrowed by the T is forecasted to hit $523 million in fiscal 2021.

The control board separately approved the elimination of the fare differential between CharlieCards and paper Charlie tickets, which means the cost of a subway or bus ride using cash or a Charlie ticket will be the same as with a Charlie Card. Currently, the Charlie ticket or cash price is 50 cents more for subway rides and 30 cents more for bus rides.

Free transfers to and from the Fairmount commuter rail line will also be allowed at some point in the coming fiscal year, which will allow someone to take a bus to the Fairmount Line and not have to pay to board the train. Similarly, someone taking the train to South Station will be able to transfer for free on to the subway system.

MBTA may procure offshore wind power

The MBTA, already the largest consumer of electricity in the state, is preparing to buy a lot more power in the future as it opens the Green Line extension and shifts to electric buses and commuter rail trains.

Andrew Brennan, the T’s director of environmental affairs, said the agency is looking for ways to purchase electricity more cheaply (this year’s bill is expected to total $42 million) and buy more renewable energy. One option under consideration, Brennan said, is to procure electricity directly from offshore wind producers.

The need for electricity is growing rapidly. At the Quincy bus garage, the T currently uses about 2 megawatts of electricity each year. With the expected purchase of 130 electric buses, Brennan said the garage’s electricity needs will rise to 15 to 18 megawatts.

COVID-19 delays means-tested fares

Members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board have been pressing for fares based on customer income levels for years, but it looks like that effort is being put off for at least another year.

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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.

Lynsey Heffernan, the T’s deputy director of policy and strategic planning, said the transit authority cannot afford to give up more revenue with income from fares at a fraction of its normal level due to the COVID-19 shutdown of the state.

Heffernan said a product manager has been hired to explore the development of means-tested fares  and she said the agency is soliciting input from community-based organizations who may be interested in partnering with the T in running such a fare program.