T’s new mantra: ‘Cut to invest’

Officials call for halting weekend commuter rail, limiting The RIDE

BY Bruce Mohl

Commonwealth Magazine

STATE TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK coined a new term on Monday to summarize the Baker administration’s budget philosophy for the MBTA: “Cut to invest.”

In a briefing with reporters, Pollack said the T is determined to eliminate its structural operating deficit in the coming fiscal year and plow state aid that would normally be used to pay off the shortfall into capital projects that would improve service at the transit agency.

But to close an estimated fiscal 2018 deficit of $42 million and pay for $7 million in new management hires, the MBTA is proposing to halt all weekend commuter rail service for at least a year, to end non-required service for disabled riders for at least a year, and to implement a host of privatization and revenue-raising initiatives. T officials said their proposals represented a starting point for discussion, but Pollack said some of them would have to be implemented.

Reaction to the plan at a meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board was generally negative.  Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns in the T service area, said discontinuing commuter rail service on weekends is a bad idea. “My members believe this is a terrible mistake,” he said.


Scores of union members condemned the T’s proposal to privatize or use the threat of privatization to wring cost savings out of six MBTA bus repair garages. Timothy King, a union official and a member of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, testified against the T’s privatization plans. And Brian Lang, a union official and member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, indicated he opposes the T’s budget-balancing plan. “At this point I would not vote for this as a budget,” he said.

During the Patrick administration, state leaders often said “reform before revenue” when talking about the T’s finances, meaning the agency needed to first get its fiscal house in order before seeking additional state funding. Pollack and T officials made clear on Monday that there is no plan to seek additional state revenue from the Legislature. Instead, they said, the T will come up with money to fund capital and service improvements by cutting spending elsewhere at the agency.

Pollack cited as an example the decision to offer paratransit riders access to Uber and Lyft services. Using Uber and Lyft costs the T about $9 per ride compared to the $40 cost of regular RIDE service. But nearly all of the savings so far have been eaten up by customers increasing the number of trips they are taking with Uber and Lyft. Pollack said she liked that tradeoff. “That is what we mean by cut to invest,” she said.

T officials are hoping to balance the agency’s operating budget for the next four years, holding spending growth over that period to just 1.8 percent. The hope is that by keeping the operating budget in check, more of the funds flowing to the T can be used for service and equipment improvements.

“No one is trying to build up a giant surplus. Nobody is trying to take money away from the T. The only tradeoff on the table is operating dollars saved go to capital,” she said. “The choices are difficult, but the one lesson I’ve learned as secretary is setting priorities.”

T officials have spent the last 18 months trimming costs and trying to reform the agency. They cut 211 corporate headquarters positions, privatized cash-handling and warehouse activities, and negotiated wage concessions from the Carmen’s Union in return for job protections. But to balance the fiscal 2018 budget will require some tough decisions. Here are the proposals they put on the table:

  • Halt weekend commuter rail service starting July 1 for a savings of $10 million. T officials say they typically run 8,000 commuter rail trips on Saturdays and 3,000 on Sundays. The passengers represent one-fifth of 1 percent of commuter rail riders, T officials said. As a result, the T’s weekend subsidy for commuter rail is $34 per trip, compared to $5 per trip on weekdays. One advantage of shutting down weekend service over the next year is that some lines will have to be shut down on weekends anyway for the installation of equipment to avoid train collissions.
  • End paratransit trips that aren’t legally required beyond the Americans with Disabilty Act service area, for a savings of $7 million. The T is required to offer service within a three-quarter-mile radius of the agency’s fixed-route services, but currently goes beyond that into communities such as Dover, Medfield, Middleton, and Topsfield. T officials estimate 210,000 trips per year extend outside the ADA-required service area.
  • Privatize T bus maintenance at the Lynn, Fellsway, Quincy, and Arborway garages for a savings of $11.1 million and privatize or use the threat of privatization to wring $10.2 million in saving from the Everett and Cabot garages.
  • Install 700 more TV monitors in stations to boost ad revenues $3 million and push Keolis to follow through on more aggressive fare collection efforts expected to yield $1 million to the T.
  • Reposition 120 temporary, in-station customer service agents as bus operators and hire a private firm to provide the service. Ninety full-time customer service agents would not be affected.

The MBTA expects to close out its current fiscal year with a $50 million operating deficit, and will use a portion of the $187 million the state provides the transit agency each year to cover the shortfall. In the coming fiscal year, however, the T wants to direct the entire $187 million into backlogged capital projects.

In addition to the $187 million appropriation, the T also receives a penny of the state sales tax and all fare and other revenue that it generates on its own. In fiscal 2018, T officials are forecasting $1.95 billion in revenues to offset operating expenses of nearly $1.5 billion and debt service of $451 million.

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