SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 10, 2013

MBTA chief still wary of budget, fare needs

From Wire and
Staff Reports

---- — BOSTON — Officials with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority are still waiting for some budgetary certainty after voting in late March to leave a $118 million hole for the Legislature to plug with new revenue expected to be generated by transportation tax legislation.

And with that issue undecided, the MBTA’s head says she’s still wary of the need for a potential new round of fare hikes or service cuts in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

“We are still waiting. We are very optimistic ..., but we don’t have the final decisions,” MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott told WGBH, saying she could not rule out fare increases next fiscal year.

Gov. Deval Patrick had pledged to veto the House tax bill, saying it was too small, and he was measured in his discussion of the Senate’s version.

As the branches reconcile the bills, it’s unclear what Patrick’s reaction will be to a final plan. The Senate bill devotes more revenue than the House by sending to transportation money from a 2.5-cents-per-gallon-of-gas fee that funds underground storage tank removals.

Patrick’s plan called for regular, modest fare increases for the MBTA and other transportation services, while the House and Senate plans both required the Department of Transportation to cover a greater percentage of its budget, either through raising fees or adopting more efficient practices.

“We’ve got 2015, and all of the plans have said there are going to be increases that wind up taking place on all user fees every couple of years,” Scott said.

At one point, Scott contradicted host Jim Braude, when he asked about a decline in ridership going back to July, when fares were raised an average of 23 percent.

“Well actually, overall ridership is up,” Scott began.

A spokesman said she may have misspoke, but said there have been monthly ridership increases in 20 of the last 27 months and 28 of the last 38.

Since July, the MBTA has lost 1.9 percent of its riders compared to the same time the year prior, and that’s when new fares and a series of new ticket policies took effect.

“The shrinkage in ridership that we projected is much less than we projected,” Scott said.

But while fares increased, MBTA officials backed off proposed service cuts that could have included dropping weekend commuter rail service — an idea that drew intense fire from Gloucester and elsewhere on Cape Ann, including from local government bodies and the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

Scott sounded amenable last week to a suggestion that the T run a late-night service at a premium, so that riders cover the entire cost of the trip.

“That is absolutely a potential,” Scott said. “Your point, which would be let’s just say it’s $10, or $7 or whatever, and if you want to do that trip, sure that’s a possibility in terms of a premium.”

Running the subway past the roughly 12:30 a.m. last train has limitations beyond funding, Scott said, referring to the lack of redundant rail lines that would allow regular work to be performed during service.

The lack of certainty about a tax bill with funds dedicated toward the MBTA, regional transit authorities like the Cape Ann Transportation Authority and highways means it’s unclear yet what the ceiling will be for MBTA funding.

“Everything is still on the table, because we don’t know at the end of the day, what the sausage is going to be,” Scott said. Scott said the MBTA has been offering free rides to some seniors in an effort to reduce the use of the costly The Ride program.

“We do have some pilot programs that we have in our senior disability community. It’s a program that we have been piloting for the last couple of years to see if you can get a migration of individuals from The Ride program to actually use regular, conventional services,” Scott said.