BOSTON — A hoped-for rescue by the state Legislature serves as the bridge across the $118 million budget gap at the state’s largest transit agency, according to a plan that was advanced Thursday.
The Massachusetts Transportation Board’s Audit and Finance Committee voted 2-1 to recommend an MBTA budget — but with the understanding that service cuts and mid-year fare increases will be triggered unless state funding arrives by July 1.
“I feel unable to support either the placeholder budget, because I don’t think it meets the letter of the law, or a budget that inflicts further pain as we did last year,” said board member Ferdinand Alvaro. He said he would rather the board “just fess up” that it can’t pass a suitable budget without action from the Legislature.
The MBTA budget for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, totals $1.86 billion, up by $100 million from $1.76 billion last year.
If the additional $118 million does not arrive by July 1, MBTA officials are planning a two-phase process next year that would result in a phase-out of the 10 least productive bus routes, followed by a process to increase fares an average of 19 percent.
Other spending reductions would be made in the preventative maintenance budget where the T would defer $48.1 million worth of projects, zeroing out $12.9 million in “pay-go” capital funding, making $5 million less in contributions to post-employment benefits, freezing administrative positions to save $2.2 million, and saving $9.5 million by eliminating a drainage and water infiltration project at Harvard Station, according to chief financial officer Jonathan Davis and a printout of the budget plan.
The public process to discuss fare increases would begin right after July 1, but the fare increases would not actually go into effect until halfway into the fiscal year. An example of “sample fares” shows subway fares rising from $2 to either $2.30 or $2.45 and bus fares rising from $1.50 to either $1.75 or $1.85.
Representatives from the disabled and elderly community took turns at the microphone ahead of the committee hearing, excoriating the 2012 fare increase at The Ride, the door-to-door para-transit service, and at times referencing an additional fare increase they said was in the works.
General Manager Bev Scott told the News Service that if the Legislature does not patch the fiscal year 2014 budget, “there would be no impact that would end up taking place for The Ride program.”
“We warned you that the human cost of your policy decision would be significant. We are here to tell you that we were right,” said Massachusetts Senior Action Council President Ann Stewart, referring to increases in fares for The Ride. She said, “Many have given up hope that you will hear us, that you will realize you made a mistake.”
If the situation remains the same heading into the fiscal 2015 budget, the MBTA would plan for a major contraction and Scott made no guarantee about sparing disabled or elderly riders from the impact.
“It’s going to have to be a legitimate resizing effort,” Scott said when asked about the potential for fiscal 2015. “I couldn’t even begin to tell you what combination would be fares, what combination would wind up being service reductions. That will be the most intense dialogue.”
“We believe the Legislature’s going to be able to act,” said Committee Chairman Alan MacDonald.
Scott agreed. She told the News Service, “I have faith.”