Lawmakers still searching for MBTA solution

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 25, 2015…..Lawmakers from both parties and from disparate districts agree on the need to fix the MBTA but no consensus has emerged on the best route to right the troubled transit agency and officials for now are agreeing on the utility of first assessing the situation.

Following an MBTA Caucus meeting with the transportation funding advocates Tuesday, several Democrats said there is a clear need for additional revenues for the MBTA. Gas and tobacco taxes were raised in 2013, though voters subsequently repealed a section of the law that would have automatically indexed gas tax increases to inflation.

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, said he filed legislation that would raise the gas tax this year to keep up with inflation. He speculated the Legislature could pass similar bills in future sessions thereby meeting the goal of the indexing repeal effort, which argued lawmakers should be required to vote for every tax increase.

“This is not automatic,” Keenan said. While “there’s a general hesitancy to take an action that some would consider different from what the voters expressed,” Keenan told the News Service his bill is “sensitive to that.”

Battered by snow and cold, the MBTA ground to a halt on several occasions over the past month, finally reopening all of its subway and trolley train lines Monday for the first time since Feb. 1.

Rep. Dan Hunt, a Dorchester Democrat, said he is a “reform-before-revenue person” and would like some answers before deciding how to deal with the “catastrophic and total failure of the T.”

Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, told the News Service lawmakers “have to look very hard at what we’re trying to do and get priorities” about maintaining service levels and expanding the system.

Rep. James O’Day, a West Boylston Democrat, said the T’s problems extend beyond Route 128, noting commuter rail delays from Worcester. He said, “I’m not sure that only efficiency is going to fix this problem.”

Rep. Jay Barrows, a Mansfield Republican, said policymakers will need to undertake a “complete and thorough analysis of the investments that have been made, the expansions that have been done” and need to “land on an agreed-upon number.”

“Then from there we can have some spirited debate on how we solve that challenge, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to increase revenue,” said Barrows.

Senate Transportation Chairman Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party, agreed that “what we need to do is find common ground.”

Gov. Charlie Baker assembled a team of transportation experts to spend the next roughly five weeks reviewing the operations, finances and governance of the T. Thirty lawmakers attended the briefing Tuesday, according to Rafael Mares, one of the presenters and a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. The MBTA caucus plans to conduct additional informational sessions and Keenan said an MBTA oversight hearing before the Senate Bonding Committee Thursday will begin the process of assembling “facts and figures” about the MBTA’s situation.

Mares’s presentation to lawmakers showed past financing plans failing to live up to projections and an MBTA in much greater debt compared to other U.S. transit agencies and with a fleet where some cars date back 70 years, according to a copy he provided to the News Service.

In fiscal year 2016 state revenues will fund $1.2 billion of the MBTA’s $2 billion budget and daily ridership is 1.3 million, according to the presentation. If sales tax revenue projections had held up over the past decade and a half, the MBTA’s penny on the 6.25 percent sales tax would have generated about $1.1 billion more than it actually received, according to Mares. Because tax receipts failed to meet expectations, the T has received a base revenue amount of the sales tax every year except the first year after the funding scheme was enacted 15 years ago, he said.

Debt accounts for 22 percent of the MBTA’s operating budget, which is higher than agencies in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and the next-closest, New York City, where debt accounts for 17 percent of the MTA’s $14.3 billion budget, according to Mares. In D.C. debt makes up less than 1 percent of the transit system’s budget. The T’s pension costs of $77 million account for a smaller percentage of its operating budget than any of those five other agencies, according to Mares.

There are 8 trolleys that date back to 1945-46. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the cars run on the Mattapan line and were rebuilt in 1983 and 2005. Red Line cars date from between 1969 to 1994 and the Orange Line fleet dates to 1981, according to the presentation.

Rep. Paul Donato, a Medford Democrat and member of House leadership, said the T is “in a position where it just can’t sustain the maintenance costs without additional revenues. It’s just the bottom line.”

While he has yet to settle on a preferred source of revenue, Sen. Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, said businesses in Burlington want expansion of T services, and he is “open to any revenue source that we could put forth.”

“People want the services but no one wants to have to pay for them,” Donnelly said. He said, “We need to step up to the plate and pay for it.”

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said her constituents are willing to pay for transportation upgrades so they can get to work via public transportation or on roads that won’t damage their cars. She said Keenan’s bill and a bill filed by Pittsfield Democrat Sen. Benjamin Downing, which would allow regions to establish their own transportation taxes, are “worth pursuing.”

Keenan said the gridlock and long commutes caused by the MBTA’s recent failures has kindled interest in finding solutions for the agency.

“If the shutdowns and failures of the last few weeks had not occurred, I’m not so sure there would be the intensity of discussion that we’re having and that I expect to have over the next few months,” Keenan said.

Barrows, who hopes policymakers will be able to “de-politicize” transportation discussions, said he expects to spend a lot of time on the issue.

“I think it will dominate this session,” Barrows told the News Service.

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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