Starts & Stops

Fiscal woes at T roll on for another year

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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It’s the least wonderful time of the year for MBTA riders, when the T sorts out how broke it is for the coming budget year in July.

The good news for passengers is that Governor Deval Patrick promised in November that the T would not raise fares this year. But his pledge does not guarantee commuters will be held harmless.

It’s looking like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will have a substantial deficit, which could mean cuts in service in the short-term, more debt restructuring, or both. The debt restructuring is a concern because growing interest payments on the T’s multibillion-dollar debt is a major reason the T keeps getting into this bind every year.

Last year, when service cuts were being deliberated, the T was looking at serious measures: cutting night and weekend runs on the subways in half and eliminating them on commuter rail. No one who takes a bus, boat, trolley, or train would have been spared the damage from the broad range of cuts, which were put off by a last-minute bailout from the Legislature.

“It’s a real high-volume concern of ours,’’ said Taisha O’Bryant, chairwoman of the T Riders Union, which has been frustrated that lawmakers have been unable to create a long-term fix for the T.

O’Bryant, who was on her way to catch on Orange Line train during a phone interview last week, said people in low-income communities, who, like her, depend on public transportation, would be hit especially hard if routes are cut or service is less frequent.

“How are they going to get to their jobs?’’ she said.

Some serious public discussion of the budget should begin this week, when the MBTA board holds its monthly meeting. For now, transportation officials are choosing their words carefully.

“I would never rule out all service cuts,’’ Jeffrey Mullan, the transportation secretary, said by phone last week. “I certainly don’t want to cut service to people who have no choice, that’s the big issue.’’

Mullan would not get specific on the numbers, but he talked about the need to put everything - except fare increases - on the table in an effort to find savings. “It’s a careful balance,’’ he said.

Likewise, the T’s budget chief, Jonathan Davis, said there would be no “significant service reductions.’’ Asked to define significant, he left a lot of room for interpretation: “I don’t think there are going to be core service reductions.’’

Neither man would say how big a budget hole needs to be filled. A November review of the agency’s finances by former John Hancock chief David D’Alessandro, ordered by Patrick, projected that the deficit for the coming year would be $70 million. Mullan said that number is not far off from current projections. Other people who follow the T closely have told me they expect the number to be higher, perhaps by tens of millions of dollars.

And those are the rosy scenarios. The situation could grow much worse if legislators decline to renew a $160 million rescue they approved for the T last year.

Those are a lot of numbers to contemplate. So look at it this way: Last year’s drastic service cut proposal would have saved the agency about $75 million.

Senator Steven A. Baddour, cochairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he did not yet know where lawmakers stand on renewing the MBTA’s rescue plan. But he urged the T and the Patrick administration to open up the process and tell everyone what the numbers are.

“The last thing we want to do is wake up one morning and read about massive fare increases and service cuts,’’ Baddour said.

To be fair, legislators often accuse the T of scare tactics when officials announce the size of their budget deficit too loudly.

Davis and Mullan both said they were still working on plans to fix next year’s budget gap without affecting service. Potential ideas include reducing the number of subway drivers from two to one on some lines, a practice that has been considered for decades. (The Blue Line runs with one operator, like most of the nation’s subways; the other three lines employ a second employee on each train to make announcements and control the doors.)

Mullan said November’s much-touted merger of the state’s transportation bureaucracies should also save some money for the T, but he would not yet give out a specific number. He also said the T may be eligible for more federal aid than it currently receives.

Both men also said the T would probably refinance some of its billions of dollars in debt to yield savings on interest payments. The T has been doing that for years, and the accumulating debt has left the agency unable to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in essential long-term repairs, according to D’Alessandro’s review of the T. Mullan said debt restructuring may make financial sense while interest rates are low.

“I’m not pretending these are easy decisions,’’ Mullan said. “They’re difficult decisions.’’

The mix of politics and money - always potent in the debate over the T - should be especially volatile this year. Patrick is up for reelection and will depend heavily on MBTA riders and supporters. The last time the Globe did a transportation poll, in December 2008, car commuters were far more likely to disapprove of Patrick’s performance than public transit riders. (He was most popular, back then, with walkers and bike commuters, who tend to be a liberal bunch.)

If Patrick has any hope of regaining some of the popularity he has lost since then, he needs MBTA riders on his side. So, no matter how bad things get with the T’s finances, it’s a safe bet that any talk of fare increases will be delayed until after the November election. And if the T avoids service cuts this year, it may be a matter of putting off the pain.

The financial options with the T, as always, are not good.