T notes: Capital spending about to start falling
Official urges putting projects on hold to conserve funds
THE MBTA said its spending on capital projects is expected to start falling in fiscal 2023 and plummet to half its current level by fiscal 2026, prompting the chair of the T’s oversight board to say the transit authority should start scaling back or delaying long-term projects to conserve funding.
Joe Aiello, the chair of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, suggested the COVID-induced drop in ridership might make it possible to postpone some projects for the time being to help reduce the looming capital crunch.
Aiello mentioned as possibilities the effort to reduce the interval between trains on the Red and Orange subway lines, the addition of a third track at the Worcester commuter rail station, and the reconstruction of four stops on the Worcester Line between Weston and Framingham. Aiello also questioned the need for the purchase of 64 bi-level passenger cars for the commuter rail line being built between Boston and New Bedford and Fall River.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has been warning for some time that funds for capital spending at the T are going to start falling off a cliff in fiscal 2025. The T didn’t dispute the foundation’s numbers, but also didn’t produce its own estimates – until Monday.
At the same time, the money needed for maintenance and modernization of existing T assets is expected to keep growing, meaning the T will face a widening gap between what it can afford to fix and what it needs to fix. Even as the T falls behind in maintaining and modernizing its existing infrastructure, there will be less money for new projects, including east-west rail, climate adaptation, the proposed West Station as part of the I-90 Allston interchange, and expanded capacity at South Station.
Gov. Charlie Baker has taken great pride in the T’s ability to dramatically increase its capital spending over the last several years, but it now appears those days may be coming to an end.
The T’s capital numbers are shrinking because state and federal sources of funds for borrowing are starting to dry up. The T said on Monday that it is increasing its annual borrowing from $500 million to $590 million from fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2025 before dropping back to $500 million a year in fiscal 2026 and beyond. The T’s higher borrowing level is a double-edged sword, however, because the higher level of borrowing will mean more interest that the T will have to pay in its operating budget.
Andrew Bagley, a vice president at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said a paring back of capital spending would be a wise course to follow. He said the situation could be eased if the Biden administration succeeds in not only passing another stimulus bill this week but also passes an infrastructure bill that could provide new funding to agencies like the MBTA. The Legislature could also provide additional funding.
Keolis permanently furloughs 9% of conductors
Keolis Commuter Services, the private company operating the MBTA’s commuter rail system is permanently furloughing 40 conductors and assistant conductors, roughly 9 percent of the conductor workforce.
Keolis said the staff reduction was necessary as ridership on the commuter rail system has plummeted and there is far less for workers to do.
New fare collection challenges, opportunities
The new cashless fare collection system being developed for the MBTA presents some challenges and some opportunities.
The challenges include expanding the number of locations where Charlie Cards can be purchased or where value can be added to existing cards. Another challenge is verifying that those who board a bus or subway pay their fare.
T officials told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that a fare verification team will be assembled and outfitted with devices that can verify if a person has paid their fare. “MBTA personnel will aim to check all passengers on a vehicle to reduce discretion and avoid bias in enforcement,” officials said, noting that passengers who board without paying will be issued a warning or a citation.
The officials said the T is considering revising existing transfer rules to accommodate additional second transfers between buses and subways and transfer discounts to the bus or subway system from the commuter rail or ferry system.
MBTA planning to restore some service in summer, fall
MBTA officials say they plan to begin restoring some service cuts his summer and fall, but acknowledged that they will have few options to reorient service if ridership rebounds after the summer schedule is set in late March.The T cut some service levels in December amid slumping ridership and the need to conserve cash to deal with looming deficits. Ferry and weekend commuter rail service cuts took effect in January, while cuts in subway and bus service will come next week.
The Fiscal and Management Control Board approved the cuts in December, which are expected to save $21 million a year. Some of the cuts could be restored in the summer and fall if ridership begins to rebound. Officials say they will try to build flexibility into the system in case ridership rebounds earlier than expected, but they said they are constrained by work rules that assign drivers to routes months in advance.