GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 24, 2013

MBTA budget aid pegs hikes in '15, '17

From Wire and Staff Reports
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — BOSTON — While senior transportation officials and state lawmakers continued to spar verbally over revenues and major expansion projects prioritized by the Patrick administration, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s chief financial officer said Tuesday he believes the financing plan passed by the Legislature would be sufficient to balance the MBTA’s budget for the next five years, but that the agency would likely be looking for new fare hikes in 2015 and 2017.

MBTA CFO Jonathan Davis said the revenues under the Legislature’s plan would allow the beleaguered agency to purchase new Red and Orange Line cars for its city system, which he described as “critical” given that cars currently in service are 35 to 45 years old.

But while Davis said the T was “hopefully” done with larger fare increases — like the one tacked on for commuter rail riders and others last year, he also reminded lawmakers that the state’s plans, even with the infusion of new revenue from tax hikes, call for more regular fare increases.

“It’s 5 percent in 2015 and it’s 5 percent in 2017,” Davis said.

A potential short-term solution to the MBTA’s short-term budget woes would bring some sense of relief to riders to and from Cape Ann, where the MBTA carries passengers to and from Boston’s North Station and Rockport, passing through Gloucester stations on Railroad and Essex avenues, and in downtown Manchester. The agency’s 2012 budget crunch also initially sparked threats to cut weekend and other commuter rail service, but the MBTA backed off that proposal after drawing widespread North Shore opposition, including from the Gloucester City Council, Rockport’s Board of Selectmen, and the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

The MBTA’s budget situation played out at the State House Tuesday while state transportation officials warned of the fiscal impact if tolls on the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike come down in four years, while one House lawmaker called the warning “scare tactics.”

Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and chair of the House Bonding Committee, accused the Patrick administration of misleading the public by suggesting that tolls on the western turnpike from Route 128/95 to the New York will come down in 2017 when the remaining $70 million in bonds are paid off.

The toll issue was used by Gov. Deval Patrick last week as the rationale for vetoing a $500 million tax bill that will ultimately dedicate $805 million in new spending to finance transportation investments over the next five years.

Patrick says the $135 million in lost toll revenue will undercut the financing plan, and limit the ability to borrow for long-term projects. The House and Senate have votes scheduled for today to override Patrick’s veto.

“I believe the $805 million will be there in 2017 because I don’t see how those tolls are going to come down,” Cabral said during an oversight hearing Tuesday. “To use the scare tactic, if you will, that if we don’t have the $135 million we won’t be able to fund South Coast or the Green Line is a little disingenuous.”

Cabral referenced a 1952 law that stipulated tolls on the western turnpike will come down when the bonds are paid off and if the highway is in a state of good repair.

“It’s unlikely a responsible secretary of transportation will make the decision to bring those down,” Cabral said, “so I think we’re focusing too much on this hypothetical possibility.”