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Transportation Secretary Forecasts The T’s Plan

In January, the MBTA proposed two plans that could help to close a projected $161 million budget gap for the 2013 fiscal year. The final plan is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. (Source: MBTA)

On Wednesday, MBTA administrators are expected to deliver their spending proposal to the T board. The plan is expected to include fare hikes and service cuts and the board has until April 15 to approve the budget.

At the final public hearing on the T’s proposals in Brighton on Monday night, Mary-Helen Nsangou, the executive director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, said the T should consider alternative options.

“I’m hoping that they’ll come up with some other strategies,” Nsangou said. “I really hope that they’ll find some new solutions to close the budget deficit that don’t involve raising fares for people who have the least means of finding alternatives.”

Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey joined  WBUR’s Morning Edition to talk about what’s next for the T.

Bob Oakes: So let’s get to the bottom line, it’s decision time now for the state: Are service cuts or fare hikes ahead?

Secretary Richard Davey: Well they’re certainly still both on the table, Bob. We’re going to take the thousands of comments that we’ve received over the past two months, and see what we can do to incorporate some of the suggestions and recommendations that our customers gave us. But again, given the significant budget gap the T has, there will be some likely combination of both fare hikes and services cuts.

So you’re saying it’s inevitable.

I think it is. Given what the MBTA and Department of Transportation have in front of us, there aren’t a lot of choices. We are going to look at our snow and ice surplus for example. The [Department of Transportation] has put $7 million dollars to shift over to the T. But really it’s a little money here, a little money there to take care of a larger issue.

Well let’s talk a little bit about the alarms being sounded by different groups who are concerned about the service cuts and fare hikes. We heard from a Boston Business group last week which warned that those moves would lead to more traffic congestion and hurt the greater Boston economy — what do you say to that?

Well I think that they’re not wrong. We’ve heard from a number of groups, I think even this morning there was a report out on the health affects of reducing service, and or increasing fares. And I think that’s the tragic irony here, Bob, is that the T is coming off a banner ridership year. And I think we all admit that the MBTA is critical to the economic health to the metropolitan Boston area, in fact the Commonwealth, and yet we are stuck in this perpetual budget crisis over the next several years.

What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve heard, in the way of a suggestion, to avoid fare hikes or service cuts from the public hearings, or the most intriguing thing that you’re thinking about taking another look at or implementing?

One idea we received particularly for seniors was having a reduced fair midday. So when we have capacity that the idea being that the seniors taking the T during rush hour likely have a job and can afford a little more. But for seniors maybe in the midday when they have a chance to schedule their appointments or social events. We’ve had a few other suggestions as well, but I think that’s the one we’re most interested in.

You’ve floated some possible solutions to cover part of the T’s funding problems. For example, you’ve suggested that Massport might take up responsibility for the ferries that are plying the Boston Harbor waters, and pay for the Silver Line. Are those proposals going to move forward?

Certainly the Silver Line, I think that’s one, that is under the current legal regime at Massport, easy to justify, and frankly the most similar to service they have today which is running a shuttle bus over to the Blue Line Airport station, that’s one I’m very interested in.

Those are good ideas, but that’s again, not going to get to the long term problems that the MBTA has, which is it’s enormous debt. So we have to keep that squarely in mind as well.

So long term, do we need a different way to fund the T, and what might that be?

We absolutely do, Bob, because regrettably we will probably be back in this situation one year from now. The T’s budget deficit is already projected to be at $40 million dollars for next year, and if we do find one time revenues for this year, that means next year’s deficit goes higher.

If we want a world class transportation system here in Massachusetts, we need a long term [solution] for that transportation system.

So you’re saying the legislature needs to step in?

Well, the legislature and the administration. This is an issue that we both have to tackle together. I know that the leadership at the legislature has been watching this very closely. As I mentioned at the same time, this is not just about the MBTA, it’s about the regional transit authorities and our road and bridge program.

Again, if we want a world class transportation system in the Commonwealth, we’ve got to find a better path forward.

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