[Story Developing] An independent MBTA oversight panel flagged concerns Tuesday that the transit agency's revised operating budget plans an unrealistic level of investment amid a significant drop in revenue due to the pandemic.

The MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the 176 cities and towns within the T's service area, warned in an oversight report that the organization "cannot continue to grow expenses by greater than its revenue growth for long."

"There is a point where the MBTA cannot afford to do all the things it wants and must focus on the things it needs to do," the advisory board wrote. "Safety and system maintenance and modernization are essential and must continue to happen. Many other projects/programs, however, need to be seriously reconsidered in light of current conditions, or may only move forward if other programs/projects are reduced or eliminated."

The MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted last week to send a $2.29 billion fiscal year 2021 spending plan to the advisory board for review, the latest step in a process upended by the COVID-19 outbreak. The proposed budget is about $170 million larger than the MBTA'S $2.12 billion fiscal year 2020 budget.

Budget-writers at the T expect operating revenue in the next fiscal year to fall between $503 million and $761 million short of their original budget because of significantly lower ridership and the statewide economic downturn.

About $827 million in federal stimulus funding will help close gaps this fiscal year and next, but advisory board members said during a Zoom meeting Tuesday that they believe further spending cuts may be necessary.

"I know we're counting on the CARES Act and money from this federal government, but I don't think we can count on that," said Jon Berg, who represents Melrose on the board. "Until it's really in our hands and allocated and appropriated, we're flying by the seat of our pants."

~ Chris Lisinski/SHNS

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