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Deadlines loom for MBTA, Turnpike

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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The governor and Senate president yesterday sought to ease fears that commuters could soon be facing a combination of toll and tax increases in the same year, but looming deadlines have forced the state's transportation agencies to make contingencies in case increased fares or tolls are needed.

The Turnpike Authority is printing new toll tickets that would be used as of July 1 if a sales tax increase is not in place by then and the MBTA continues to analyze possible fare increases, and service reductions.

"We may actually see the music stop and we'll see who has a chair and who doesn't," said Stephen J. Silveira, a lobbyist who led a state commission on transportation funding that outlined a $20 billion problem over the next two decades.

The House and Senate have both passed - by a veto-proof majority - budgets that would increase the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent and devote about $275 million to transportation.

House and Senate negotiators have been meeting privately to hash out details of the plan, including whether to place specific restrictions on how money can be spent, and whether to protect the level of the subsidy from downturns in the economy. Lawmakers appear committed to preventing the hefty toll increases that are otherwise set to take effect July 1.

"The public cannot be expected to take on any additional burdens, like a toll increase, when they are already being asked to make significant sacrifices for the greater good of the Commonwealth," Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement.

Governor Deval Patrick has threatened to veto the sales tax increase, but dialed back rhetoric about a possible toll hike yesterday, even as he continued to assert that raising the gas tax would make more sense.

"We're not going to have a tax increase and the tolls," Patrick said. "Nobody wants that, I certainly don't want that."

Lawmakers have made less of a public commitment to rescuing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority from its $160 million deficit. The MBTA passed a budget earlier this year that presumes there will be a legislative bailout. But an advisory panel, which has the final word on the authority's budget, is expected to reject that plan at a meeting today. Instead, the MBTA Advisory Board will consider a budget that lays off about 1,200 MBTA employees - putting further pressure on the T to begin publicly planning service cuts and fare hikes.

In practice, the T would still have several months of public hearings to decide what combination of layoffs, service cuts or fare hikes it would impose to plug its budget gap. General manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said in an e-mail yesterday that he is "very much encouraged by the support in the House and Senate for transportation reform and new funding that is currently pending."

Assuming the Legislature keeps its transportation commitment at $275 million, there would be enough to avoid fee hikes on both the turnpike and the T for another year. But the state might not use all the money solely on those two agencies because residents outside Greater Boston would benefit less.

The western portion of the turnpike and other state highways have significant maintenance problems and the regional transit authorities that run local bus services have also been hit by the bad economy.

Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who is cochairman of the transportation committee, said yesterday he hopes to avoid any turnpike toll increase in Greater Boston, but believed the T might not get all the help it needs to avoid a fare increase.

Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.