SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 18, 2013

Bond hikes fines for skipping MBTA fares

From Staff and Wire Reports
The Salem News

---- — BOSTON — A $12.1 billion transportation bond bill that emerged from a Statehouse committee last week is packed with money for major projects favored by Gov. Deval Patrick but also includes provisions for doubling the fines for fare evasion on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail trains, subways and buses alike.

The five-year bill includes $175 million for rail links between Pittsfield and New York City, Worcester and Springfield, as well as Boston and Cape Cod, along with $2.2 billion for the South Coast Rail to New Bedford and Fall River.

It also included $1.3 billion for the Green Line extension, $2.5 billion for trains and buses, and $300 million for a South Station expansion that’s seen as critical to efforts to increase commuter rail capacity.

Patrick and Transportation Secretary Richard Davey had pushed for a $1.9 billion tax bill earlier this year to fund transportation and education and wound up with roughly $340 million in new taxes this summer.

“This is a project spending level that from my conversations with the secretary, the administration finds acceptable,” Transportation Committee House Chairman William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, told the News Service. He said, “That $12 billion number is specifically what the administration asked for, after we had done the tax bill.”

The bill, however, also doubles the fines for fare evasion on the MBTA and its commuter rail, which serves the North Shore and saw those fares and fines alike increased in 2012 as part of an MBTA bailout.

“We did increase those fines so no one thinks there is anything like a free ride on the T,” Straus told the State House News Service.

Among items not included in the bill is local road funding known as Chapter 90.

Earlier in the year, the committee separated out Chapter 90 funding from the governor’s transportation bond bill, which gave it 10 years at $300 million per year.

The Legislature passed one year of Chapter 90 funding at $300 million, a 50 percent increase from last year, and local officials heaped criticism on the administration after Patrick signed the bill but only released half the funding, later adding another $50 million to bring the Chapter 90 back up to $200 million.

The delays widely affected funding and a number of street and sidewalk projects, including in Gloucester, which had been expecting just over $1 million at the start of the construction season and instead initially received just half of that.

Transportation bond bills have typically attracted project earmarks during the drafting process and once they hit the floor for a vote. The bill that cleared the Transportation Committee Wednesday already includes $182.1 million in earmarks for House and Senate members, according to a summary.

A committee aide said 15 members voted in favor of the bill, three voted against it, and two reserved their rights. If passed, the governor’s office — Massachusetts voters are scheduled to elect Gov. Deval Patrick’s successor next November — would have the onus to decide whether to fund the various spending items.

An extension of the Silver Line to Chelsea is not specifically funded in the bill, nor is funding for a Springfield Viaduct, according to Straus, who said some proposed earmarks were excluded from the bill itself but could be added when the bill hits the floors of the House and Senate. He said the bill would move through the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets and Ways and Means before hitting the House floor.

Several of the projects are at different levels of completion. The train lines from Pittsfield to New York and Worcester to Springfield “still need quite a lot of design,” while the rail to the Cape is already in place and in need of track upgrades.

Straus and other South Coast lawmakers have pushed for completion of a commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford, through Taunton, which the administration initially gave a $1.8 billion price tag when it sought to use diesel locomotives. An environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers said the project should use more costly electrically wired trains, and the cost was increased by $400 million.

“That’s the number that the administration provided to us based on the completion of the Army Corps of Engineers environmental review,” Straus said.

Straus said the actual completion of South Coast Rail will depend on the next governor, and the Legislature will likely have done all the lawmaking needed to provide for the project by passing the bond bill.

“As I read existing law, authorization and financing that the Legislature has undertaken, with this approval the Legislature will not be required or called upon to adopt anything further with South Coast Rail,” Straus said. “The success of South Coast Rail will depend on this and the next governor.”

Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who used to head up the regional chamber of commerce and has pushed for the train for decades, said funding bills for South Coast Rail have passed before.

“This is just one more step. I don’t get too excited,” said Montigny. “In fact, the next time I get excited will be if the day comes when the first train arrives. Until then, I’ll probably be pretty tempered in my responses.