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MBTA Control Board's 1st Report Paints 'A Bleak Picture'

An Orange Line train pulls into Community College Station in Charlestown. The MBTA's operating expenses and debt service, a new report says, are growing at nearly three times the rate of revenue growth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An Orange Line train pulls into Community College Station in Charlestown. The MBTA's operating expenses and debt service, a new report says, are growing at nearly three times the rate of revenue growth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 5 years old.

The first report from a new board overseeing the MBTA "paints a bleak picture" of the long-troubled transit system's finances, the board's chair says.

“Without question, this report paints a bleak picture of the current state of the MBTA,” MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board Chairman Joseph Aiello said in a statement. “But it provides the baseline we need to be able to move forward with actions to get the MBTA back on track.”

The report, out Tuesday, largely reinforces issues raised by a panel created in the wake of the T's rough winter. The report however highlights two areas that the panel says are of particular concern -- an "unsustainable" annual operating budget and an ever-growing state-of-good-repair backlog.

The T's operating expenses and debt service, the report says, are growing at nearly three times the rate of revenue growth. Left unaddressed, the board says the T's operating deficit will grow from a projected $170 million in fiscal year 2016 to a projected $427 million in fiscal year 2020.

Click to enlarge (Source: MBTA)
Click to enlarge (Source: MBTA)

To address the deficit, the control board says in the report it will look for ways to reduce operating expenses, increase "own-source revenue" — such as advertising, real estate leases and transactions, parking and public-private partnerships — and seek out alternative strategies for managing debt.

The board also emphasized the T's need to increase capital spending on its state-of-good-repair backlog, which is estimated at $7.3 billion and expected to increase. But, the panel noted, there are significant issues in every area of the T's capital budget — including implementing "important and costly safety initiatives" the T is behind schedule on, and continuing work to make sure all the T's facilities are handicap accessible.

The report also says the board is "paying special attention to potentially high-risk, high-dollar areas of exposure in the current capital plan," such as the Green Line Extension to Somerville and Medford. The contractor behind the project recently raised the estimated cost from $2 billion to $3 billion, potentially imperiling it. The board is seeking an independent audit to find out what's behind the ballooning costs and plans to propose a "path forward" in its next report, due out in December.

The board also highlighted several areas where the T has made progress, such as the creation of a winter resiliency plan. According to the report, third rails and third rail heaters have been replaced on both the Red and Orange lines, traction motors — which caused several of last winter's major problems — are now in stock, and snow-clearing priorities have been set.

The panel also said in its report that it would soon be making certain performance metrics — such as on-time performance, ridership and revenue targets -- available online. That includes the release of a weekly scorecard that will offer "key performance indicators with the greatest impact on customers."

"Initial focus is on on-time performance, broken out by peak and off-peak periods for the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines, MBTA bus routes, and commuter rail service by lines," the report said. "Near-term additions will include dropped trips, canceled commuter rail trains, and Green Line performance."

On the commuter rail, which suffered long after the T was back in service this winter, the panel says on-time performance is improving and Keolis is training 30 new fare collectors in response to reports of inconsistent fare collection.

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Abby Elizabeth Conway Twitter Digital Producer/Editor
Abby Elizabeth Conway was formerly a digital producer and editor at WBUR.

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