THE LAST six weeks of harsh winter weather have been hard on the MBTA and its riders. The breakdowns and delays on both the subway and commuter rail lines have made a mockery of the notion that commuters should leave their cars at home during storms and rely on public transportation. Worse, the problems threaten to turn T users into drivers, in good weather or bad, increasing the region’s highway congestion.
With better weather, the MBTA will recover from this bad spell, but the fact that so many mishaps occurred on lines with old equipment puts a spotlight on the system’s underlying problem: It lacks the money to replace aging subway cars, locomotives, and rail coaches or to catch up on $3 billion in deferred maintenance. Meanwhile, a fiscal lifeline from Washington is highly unlikely, and stiff fare increases would further discourage ridership.
But there’s a more promising source of money for repairs and new equipment — Logan Airport’s $90 million to $100 million in annual parking-fee revenues.
State officials will have to be resourceful in finding alternative sources of aid for the T that don’t leave the state coffers even more depleted than they already are. T General Manager Richard Davey is planning to sell transit-themed coffee mugs and T-shirts, a sideline that has turned into a profitable moneymaker for the New York City system. But other options are clearly needed.
In the days when each transportation agency was left to fend for itself, with some struggling and others hoarding resources, use of Massport revenues to subsidize the T would be a non-starter. Even now, the federal government has rules against spending airport revenues on non-aviation projects, so a cross-subsidy of the T might require a waiver. But the chairman of the Massport board now is state transportation secretary Jeff Mullan, who is only too aware that the T’s two main sources of revenues (fares, and a state subsidy consisting now of a 1-cent share of the state’s 6.25-cent sales tax plus $160 million) are woefully inadequate. The Legislature granted the T that thin slice of the sales tax in 2000, but that hasn’t yielded as much as revenue as predicted, while the T’s outlays for energy and the health costs of its employees have increased sharply.
Meanwhile, Massport stands on solid footing, and should be able to cover its necessary expenses through landing fees and other revenues, while sacrificing at least some of its parking receipts.
Each year, the T pays more to service its debt than it takes in at the farebox. Meanwhile, more than half its 80 locomotives are at or near their expected 25-year lifespan. If the MBTA is to continue providing the public transportation the region so desperately needs, it has to get creative in finding new revenue. The Logan lots and garages are a place to start.