March 21, 2018

MBTA fare hikes pushed off to 2019

Photo/Grant Welker
A commuter rail train pulls into Worcester's Union Station.

The MBTA Board this week advanced a $2 billion fiscal 2019 budget that pushes fare increases off the table until after this year's elections, despite a $36.5 million hole in the agency's spending plans.

The $2.057 billion preliminary budget boosts spending by more than $49 million, but only about $16 million is being invested in the operating budget while the T, as it makes infrastructure and expansion investments, plans to devote $33 million more to the account dedicated to paying down the agency's debt. At $13 million, the increase in the T's planned spending on debt service interest alone nearly rivals its planned increase in non-debt operating expenses.

The spending on borrowing appears to reflect the T's emphasis on upgrading infrastructure. MBTA board member Steve Poftak said at a meeting on Monday that agency's investment program over the next five years totals $8.2 billion and is designed to deliver the "resilient and reliable MBTA that we all want."

The plan calls for millions of dollars in new revenue - from corporations, advertisers and riders who park at MBTA facilities - but includes scant details on how those revenue initiatives would be structured. Another $30 million in planned savings is loosely associated with "lean productivity programs."

MBTA officials are hoping to plug the $36.5 million gap in their budget with state tax revenues derived from communities inside and outside the MBTA region.

The biggest single source of funding for the T is its statutory $1.0321 billion slice of state sales tax revenues in fiscal 2019, under the plan.

"The MBTA is not contemplating a fare increase for the next fiscal year," MBTA Acting Chief Financial Officer Paul Brandley told the MBTA Control Board.

But avoiding near-term fare hikes is also hinging on getting statutory relief from a mandate to adopt a so-called good government reform - moving employees paid through borrowed funds off the capital budget and on to the operating budget.

If the Legislature forces the T has to go through with that, it would increase costs for the agency by about $27 million in fiscal 2019.

T officials appear poised to drain more revenue from system users who leave their cars at MBTA facilities. Plans call for the T to generate $7 million in new funds from a "parking fee revision," an initiative that MBTA officials have declined to explain.

MBTA General Manager Luis Ramírez told reporters Monday there would be a presentation about changes to parking fees at the March 26 board meeting. That meeting will also feature a "strategic hire update" and a "revenue update," according to MBTA documents.

The MBTA Advisory Board will now review the preliminary budget; the control board plans to adopt a final spending plan for fiscal 2019 by April 15.

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