Massachusetts lawmakers weigh transit control board extension

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As Massachusetts wrestles with transportation funding, state officials and lawmakers face a deadline: the sunset of a mass transit fiscal oversight board.

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board — formed after a snow crisis early in 2015 paralyzed parts of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Greater Boston — is scheduled to expire on June 30. While sentiment is widespread for extending the board, its governance structure and updated focus are in play.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in releasing his $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget last week, wants to replace the five-person expert board with a seven-member panel that he would appoint, including the state transportation secretary. The MBTA has been a unit of the state Department of Transportation since 2009.

While Baker would have one municipal representative on the board, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh called for a seat for the capital city, whose $86 million annual contribution is by far the largest for any of the 78 municipalities in the system.

“We need to take the essential next steps to improve mobility in our city and our region," Walsh said. "Boston continues to be the largest payer into the MBTA system, and I will continue to advocate for Boston having a dedicated seat and voice on the MBTA board.”

Jim Stergios, executive director of Boston-based think tank Pioneer Institute, said such a move could prompt other parochial representation and fragment the board.

"The great strength of the FMCB is that it is composed of experts rather than political appointees," Stergios said. "A wiser choice is to ensure that the FMCB continue as an expert board that is focused on the transit agency’s most pressing problems."

According to Stergios, the control panel could grasp new challenges.

"Five years later, fiscal issues remain critical, but so are challenges like resilience and responding to climate change, problems revealed by the Safety Review Panel report, and roadway congestion has mushroomed."

A 69-page report by the safety panel, consisting of transportation experts, cited deficiencies throughout the MBTA, some "troubling."

The business organization A Better City and rider advocacy group Transit Matters also favor extending the board.

Separately, the state legislature is weighing Baker's $18 billion transportation bond bill, which would borrow against future revenues. Legislative leaders have been hashing out details in caucuses, mindful of the parochialism that has long marked Bay State politics. Options include higher taxes and fees, and tolls near border states.

The bond bill earmarks $11 billion for road and bridge improvements and $7 billion for additional expansion and modernization of transit, commuter rail and bus services.

Baker's FY21 budget provides $216.7 million more in funding for the MBTA and other organizations, and a $135 million increase alone for the MBTA. The governor is also calling for an increase in fees to rideshare app services, such as Uber and Lyft, by $100 million.

On Monday, labor groups and lawmakers criticized privatization of some bus service, which authority officials and the control board are considering.

Privatization "is an unnecessary gamble with a long history of failure," said state Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, co-chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. "At the end of the day, privatization only results in higher costs and lower-quality service."

Speaking to reporters, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the authority's agreement with several unions enables flexible contracting with service expansion.

“We are currently in the process of procuring 60 buses," Poftak said. "We are analyzing both in-house and outsourced proposals to operate those buses. That evaluation continues.”

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Infrastructure State budgets Charlie Baker Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Pioneer Institute Massachusetts