Cuts to Boston-area transit are short-sighted, advocates say

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The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s proposed steep service cuts to help balance an operating budget ravaged by COVID-19 have prompted transit advocates and elected officials to question whether the moves are short-sighted.

Officials, at Monday’s online meeting of the state-run MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, outlined a dark landscape that projects an operating gap of up to $579 million for fiscal 2022, assuming no further federal aid nor assistance from the state legislature.

The MBTA and other transit agencies nationwide are requesting from Congress a combined $32 billion in the next rescue bill. Talks stalled in Washington before the national elections and how the presidential and other races will affect the dynamic of rescue funding is still uncertain.

The “T,” as locals call Greater Boston’s state-run mass-transit system, expects to save $142 million from the reductions, which include early subway line shutdowns, a freeze on commuter boat services and the elimination of some bus routes.

The oversight board plans to vote on the plan next month, and will hold regional public hearings throughout November.

Adjustments call for shifting up to $514 million in capital funds to cover operating needs, and up to $140 million in “department/programmatic” budget shifts.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on ridership and the MBTA is releasing these proposed changes to adjust to the realities created by COVID-19, while protecting service for those who depend on it most,” General Manager Steve Poftak said. “These service changes are not permanent, do not include any fare changes, and will not take effect immediately.”

While the MBTA is operating roughly at full service, except for ferries, overall ridership is merely 26% of its September 2019 count, said Chief of Operations Strategy Kat Banesh.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledged the capital-to-operating shift as necessary despite the MBTA’s history of doing that to its own detriment, before the control board took over five years ago.

Such moves also raise red flags with bond rating agencies.

“I do think that it’s very important to keep the use of capital dollars in the operating budget to a minimum,” Pollack said. “I think what’s been proposed does that, but I would definitely not be comfortable going beyond what’s being proposed.”

Several advocacy groups urged the control board to delay the decision and called on the legislature to boost mass-transit funding.

Stacy Thompson, executive director for the Livable Streets Alliance, said cuts to even low-ridership bus routes would be consequential.

“The one or two people on that bus are going to homes to make sure your children are being cared for, or are going to the hospital to make sure you are being cared for,” she said at a press conference in front of the state transportation building in Boston.

State Rep. Michael Day, D-Stoneham, called a pause on capital projects “short-term and short-sighted” economically. He referenced a commuter rail station project in Winchester, eight miles northwest of Boston.

“There will be nothing to build back in Winchester if we delay this renovation,” he said. The economic-development fallout, he said, “won’t be something we can just flip the switch on and regain.”

Andrew Bagley, vice president for policy at the watchdog Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, warned that borrowing an additional $500 million annually could stifle the MBTA’s operating budget while still leaving huge shortfalls for maintenance, modernization and safety spending.

Capital-needs shortfalls, he added, could reach $750 million by fiscal 2026.

“Whatever you increase your debt issuance by, you’re only fixing the problem at the margins,” he said. “You’ll still only have money for the core system. You won’t have the money for climate change; you won’t have the money for the expansion projects that are under consideration.”

The commonwealth has allocated an additional $140 million in bond capacity for fiscal 2021 to the MBTA.

In addition, the legislature enacted capital-salaries language in the fiscal 2020 closeout budget, enabling the MBTA to charge costs of employees working on capital budgets to federal funds, MBTA revenue bonds and state special obligation bonds.

Those provisions had been part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed $18 billion transportation bond bill, which is stalled because of the coronavirus.

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Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Coronavirus Massachusetts Transportation industry State budgets