T notes: Lawmakers hike funding for regional transit authorities
Pilot to test whether off-peak toll discounts can ease congestion
STATE LAWMAKERS ON WEDNESDAY set aside $88 million for the state’s 15 regional transit authorities, $8 million more than Gov. Charlie Baker had recommended for fiscal 2019.
The legislative budget also creates a task force to examine ways to improve the performance of the authorities, which provide bus service in regions outside Boston. Part of the increase in funding is also conditional on the authorities agreeing to change the way they operate. The budget sets aside $4 million for authorities that sign memorandums of understanding committing to best practices. Another $2 million would go to authorities that agree to remedial plans.
Many of the regional transit authorities have been struggling to maintain services as their costs have risen. Some have been hiking fares and cutting service to balance their budgets, prompting concerns that they could be trapped in a death spiral as fares keep going up, service keeps going down, and ridership keeps falling.
Jonathan Church, the administrator of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, said in a statement that his initial reading of the budget suggests his agency would receive an additional $224,000 this fiscal year compared to last year’s base allocation.
The higher appropriation is a victory of sorts for Senate President Harriette Chandler of Worcester, who had championed a funding increase for the regional authorities. At the same time, the new commitment to improving the performance of the authorities represents a nod to the Baker administration, which has criticized the agencies for expanding service over the years without increasing fares.
New tolling pilot approved
The new legislative budget directs state transportation officials to launch a pilot program no later than the end of March 2019 to test the technological feasibility of charging toll rates that vary by time of day in a bid to reduce congestion at peak periods.
Transportation for Massachusetts has urged state officials to lower toll rates for drivers who use the Turnpike at off-peak periods, which the advocacy group believes will reduce traffic congestion at peak periods. The legislation approved on Wednesday said the off-peak discount offered as part of the pilot should be at least 25 percent.
Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, applauded the legislative pilot. This is a unique opportunity to demonstrate how modest toll discounts can be an important tool for reducing congestion,” he said. “As a rule-of-thumb, if we change the behavior of only 5 percent of commuters, we can reduce traffic by up to 20 percent, improving the commutes for everyone.”
T to continue paying workers with capital fundsThe House gave in on Wednesday and went along with Senate budget language that gives the MBTA the authority to continue paying about 200 employees using capital funds, which tend to be federal or borrowed money.
The Senate gave the T the go-ahead in its budget but the House balked, insisting the employees should be moved on to the operating budget and giving the T an extra $27 to accomplish the job.