MBTA $2 bil budget needs savings from bus maintenance, rail, The Ride

THINKSTOCK

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – Without specific plans for how to achieve savings, MBTA overseers on Thursday targeted the commuter rail, bus maintenance and The Ride paratransit service for reduced spending, passing a $1.989 billion fiscal 2018 budget that leaves a $30 million budget gap.

The budget assumes no fare increases, an across-the-board 2.5 percent wage increase for most of the T’s unions, and more than $1 billion in revenue from the state sales tax along with a supplemental $187 million appropriation from the state budget.

The budget that was approved unanimously by the Fiscal and Management Control Board directs T officials to find $1 million in savings from The Ride, $5 million from the commuter rail and $8 million from bus maintenance.

The board opted against eliminating same-day trip booking on The Ride and scaled down a staff proposal for privatizing four bus garages – opting to pursue privatization in tandem with other efforts to bring down the cost of bus maintenance. On the bus maintenance side, T officials will pursue a three-track course of negotiating with the union, exploring privatization and achieving efficiencies at its in-house bus garages.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the T has a plan for running its Cabot garage, a repair facility in Boston, more efficiently that she is confident will generate $5 million in savings.

The MBTA has held spending growth flat in recent years while making controversial moves to privatize services such as cash handling and spare parts delivery.

MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve said projections from years before the 2015 installation of the control board anticipated a $335 million deficit in fiscal 2018 – 10 times as large as the deficit in the budget agreed to on Thursday.

“I think it’s terrific for our riders. I think it’s terrific for the T,” Shortsleeve said after the vote.

Under the plan, the T’s structural deficit would shrink about 40 percent from the roughly $50 million gap in fiscal 2017. As has been the case in recent years, T officials are counting on lawmakers to provide additional dollars through the state budget to fill part of its budget gap.

In addition to the savings, the T plans to make $7 million in “strategic” hires. MBTA Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville said he plans to add 56 positions to T operations, including 21 working on power systems, 15 working on track maintenance, and one public information officer to alert customers to service issues.

After Gov. Charlie Baker nixed the idea of saving $10 million by temporarily eliminating weekend commuter rail service, the board on Thursday planned to look for about half that amount in savings from the sprawling rail service, which has about 129,000 weekday boardings.

At the outset of what he said he hoped would be a “freewheeling” discussion on Thursday, MBTA control board member Brian Lang suggested including the commuter rail in the areas where T officials look to reduce costs. After the vote, Lang said it is unclear exactly how those savings would be realized or who might be affected.

“When it came to commuter rail, we didn’t really put forward a policy or a strategy, so I think there’s a lot of digging in that has to happen there,” Lang said after the meeting.

The commuter rail is operated under a long-term contract with the vendor Keolis Commuter Services.

Lang also pushed T officials to prioritize working with the existing in-house bus maintenance labor force rather than privatizing the work.

“We happen to have exceptional workers in our maintenance department and I would like us to pursue a policy that allows for our preferred – our preferred method would be to achieve cost savings in collaboration with the existing workforce,” Lang said during debate. “If that isn’t achievable then the other strategies would be a fallback.”

The budget is predicated on an increase in ad revenue associated with the MBTA relaxing its ban on alcohol ads. T officials said video screens could be programmed to avoid displaying the ads while students are riding transit to or from school.

The T also intends to partially privatize its customer service operations for a $6 million savings.

The fiscal 2018 budget will also need to account for operations to begin on the Silver Line’s extension into Chelsea, according to T officials.

MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Paul Regan suggested that the T look toward video advertisements on new subway cars as a “future source of revenue.”

Regan also said the advisory board opposes service cuts and urged T officials to “go slow on the privatization of bus maintenance.”

Copyright 2017 State House News Service

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