T running out of options on budget cuts

As service cuts eliminated, spending pressure increases

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD is running out of options to pare back spending in the coming fiscal year.

The T wants to balance its fiscal 2018 budget without touching $187 million expected to be provided by the Legislature. To do that, the T has estimated it needs to find $42 million in cuts plus another $5 million in spending reductions to offset plans to hire approximately 54 new people in transit operations.

Two weeks ago, T officials urged the Fiscal and Management Control Board to adopt a series of measures to reduce overall spending on operations by $47 million, including halting weekend commuter rail (projected savings of $10 million), paring back paratransit service to the geographic area required by the Americans with Disabilities Act ($7 million savings), and privatizing or using the threat of privatization to wring $28 million in savings out of bus repair garages.

Gov. Charlie Baker has already taken the elimination of weekend commuter rail service off the table. The Fiscal and Management Control Board indicated on Monday that it is inclined to kill the paratransit service cut. And there appears to be growing consensus on the board that the T needs to spend more than $5 million on adding workers to the operations department.

At Monday’s meeting of the control board, Brian Lang, one of the directors, filed a motion to take the paratransit cuts off the table. He said he had been moved by the testimony of the elderly and disabled who would be affected by the cutback.

Joseph Aiello, chair of the control board, suggested putting Lang’s motion on hold temporarily to give the T and members of the disabled community a chance to come up with alternative spending cuts in The Ride program by April 10. Lang said he considered Aiello’s amendment a friendly one, and voted  unanimously with the other board members to approve it.

The board’s attitude toward the bus maintenance privatization initiatives is hard to read. Business groups, who have formed the FixOurT Coalition, testified in support of privatization on Monday, while the machinists union that would be most affected strenuously objected.

Mike Vartabedian, the area director of the union, told the control board his members are willing to negotiate wage and work rule concessions to avoid privatization of their jobs. The Carmen’s Union, the T’s largest union, negotiated such an agreement in December. Vartabedian said T officials so far have refused to sit down and talk with union officials.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, urged the board to approve an extra $5 million to hire more staff in the operations department at the agency. He detailed 54 new hires that he said were needed. Board members asked for a lot more details on how many workers would actually be added, but one board member, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, said she was skeptical $5 million in additional spending on new workers would be sufficient.

“It doesn’t seem like this is enough,” she said.

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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.

Gonneville acknowledged he had initially asked that more employees be added, but said the $5 million request should be enough for now to start building out the operations department.

The MBTA wants to use all of its $187 million appropriation from the Legislature for longer-term investments in the transit agency. It doesn’t appear that will be possible in fiscal 2018, given the desire not to implement service cuts.

Steven Poftak, a member of the control board, noted he and his fellow members have been trying to decide how quickly the agency’s backlog of state-of-good-repair projects can be eliminated. The current draft of the board’s strategic plan calls for what he calls a 15-year burnoff, but some advocates are pressing to do it in 10 or possibly even eight years. Poftak said that kind of turnaround will require more money for capital investments, and a lot of that money will have to come from the legislative appropriation. Poftak urged T officials to give the board more options for spending cuts, saying he felt constrained with the current options on the table. (CLARIFICATION: Following the publication of this story, Poftak clarified the board’s view on the burnoff rate and the view of advocates.)