By Drew M. Bailey, Community Reporter
Region – The Mass Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) held a public meeting Feb. 14 at Nevins Hall in Framingham. Representatives of the transit authority presented two proposals that would reduce costs, increase revenues and cut service in a desperate attempt to deal with serious budgetary shortfalls.
The MBTA estimated a deficit of $185 million in fiscal year 2013, reduced to $161 million after implementing efforts to streamline and reduce expenditures. The trouble originated in 2000 when “Forward Funding” legislation was voted into place. This system would finance the transit authority through assessments on the communities it serves, but more importantly, through the receipt of a percentage of tax receipts – a pool that was projected to expand continually for the next decade and beyond. Since 2004, however, tax receipts have underperformed estimates, resulting in budgetary shortfalls.
At the same time Forward Funding went into effect, the state borrowed money through the MBTA for capital projects associated with expanding the transit system. It also inherited $3.6 billion of outstanding transit-related debt, a portion of which originated in the financial mire of the Big Dig. Now $5.2 billion in debt, the MBTA loses 30 percent of its revenue to principle and interest payments, and has little left to contribute to a backlog of over $3 billion of badly needed repairs, upgrades and maintenance.
MBTA Senior Director Charles Planck said that increases in operating expense – energy, fuel and healthcare – as well as a 400 percent increase over the past 10 years in costs associated with “The Ride” service, have also contributed to the transit authority's current insolvency.
The agency has proposed two scenarios to deal with the fiscal dilemma. The first would increase fares by an average of 43 percent and would eliminate more than 20 weekday bus and private carrier routes, as well as a similar number on both Saturday and Sunday, all ferries, and commuter rail service after 10 p.m. and on weekends. This scenario would also result in dramatic increases in the cost of the Ride, in some cases by as much as $10 per trip.
The second scenario would result in lower average fare increases – around 35 percent in most cases – but would completely eliminate over 100 bus and private carrier routes, and would result in similar cuts in ferry and commuter rail services. Although the cost of the Ride would increase overall, it would not see the same steep increases required by the first scenario.
The public expressed outrage and disbelief at both proposals.
Framingham resident Kathy McCartney said the sudden increases would create “a major hardship” for many riders.
Indignation arose from the fact that the transit system has been underperforming for nearly a decade, but its administrators are only now attempting to improve the situation.
“I urge you to understand the impact of these sudden increases,” Ashland resident Robert Share said.
Most seemed to understand that the system needed to be both balanced and profitable, but could not why changes were not implemented gradually.
“I’m a little surprised it hasn’t gone up in smaller increments,” Framingham resident Karen Dempsey said.
State Sen. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, urged the MBTA officials to reconsider their proposals because of the effects they would have on economic growth in the Metrowest area.
“I don’t think this makes sense in the short term … I don’t think it makes sense in the long term,” she said.
Planck and General Manager Jonathan Davis both were open to developing a third option based on public input generated during the forums they will conduct until the beginning of March.
Written comments will be accepted by mail or email until Thursday, March 1. Visit the MBTA website, www.mbta.com, for more information.