T unveils controversial, last-minute cost-saving proposals
Alcohol ads, vague commuter rail cuts added to mix
THE MBTA’S PLAN TO BALANCE its operating budget next year without tapping any of a $187 million legislative appropriation was scrapped on Monday; the only question now is how much of the funding will be used.
The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is slated to approve a fiscal 2018 budget on Thursday. T staff on Monday outlined a series of initiatives to reduce spending and boost revenues so most of the $187 million could be used for longer-term capital projects. The initiatives included unspecified weekend commuter rail cuts, proposals to provide paratransit service at less cost, and the acceptance of alcohol advertising.
But even assuming all of the proposals are approved (which seems unlikely), T officials said they would need to use at least $15 million of the legislative appropriation to cover operating costs. The likelihood is much more than $15 million will be needed.
The context of the debate is important. The T has dramatically scaled back its spending growth on operations and officials laid out a plan in early March to balance the fiscal 2018 budget without using any of a $187 million appropriation from the Legislature. To reach that goal, T officials called for eliminating all weekend commuter rail service, cutting paratransit service not required under the Americans with Disability Act, and privatizing a significant amount of bus maintenance work.
T officials are forecasting that, without tapping the $187 million legislative appropriation, the transit agency is facing a $52 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. To eliminate the shortfall, T staff on Monday recommended bus maintenance privatization (saving $13.2 million in fiscal 2018), privatization of in-station customer service functions ($5.8 million), cost-saving modifications to paratransit service ($4 million), cuts in weekend commuter rail service ($4.5 million), and aggressive expansion of commuter rail ridership and in-station advertising, including alcohol ads ($2 million).
Even if all of those proposals are approved, the T would still come up nearly $15 million short, and would need to use the legislative appropriation to cover the shortfall.
But it’s likely the shortfall will grow because the savings estimates seem shaky. For example, T officials couldn’t say where their commuter rail savings would come from. They acknowledged it would be necessary to shut down service on lines that attract few riders, but they couldn’t say which lines would be affected.
“We’re going to spend the next couple months doing detailed passenger counts,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator and acting general manager. Using those passenger counts, he said, the T would decide which weekend commuter rail services are not gaining traction with riders and could be shut down.
T staff recommended using a brokerage system used by other agencies in state government to provide paratransit service in areas beyond three-quarters of a mile of the transit agency’s fixed bus and subway service area. T officials also recommended elimination of same-day service in areas outside the T’s bus and subway footprint. Advocates for the disabled cautioned that the T’s savings goals were far too ambitious.T staff said they expected to gain $1 million from an initiative to increase commuter rail ridership and another $1 million from expanded digital advertising. T officials said the expanded advertising dollars would come in part from rescinding a 2012 ban on alcohol advertising. In a bid to head off strong opposition to the move, T officials said the ads would only appear at off-peak hours when children would not be commuting on the T to and from school.
Brian Lang, a member of the T oversight board who also heads a union, said he didn’t think the bus maintenance privatization initiatives would yield the savings the T is forecasting. “This is a very aggressive schedule I’d wager we’ll never meet,” he said. “Most of it isn’t going to happen.”