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Snow tests T, highway budgets

Rail, road clearing cost nearly $100m

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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Nearly $100 million in combined snow removal costs for the state’s highways and for the MBTA have the T and the Department of Transportation on pace to spend far more than budgeted for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Even as both agencies prepare their budgets for fiscal 2012, they are working to avoid closing the books on 2011 in the red. The Department of Transportation is seeking $32.5 million in supplemental help from the Legislature, to avoid a choice between paying bills to plow contractors or meeting staff payroll, officials said.

The T, meanwhile, is trying to close a projected $12 million deficit, much of it caused by the storms, largely by cutting back on overtime and trying to sell or lease more surplus property.

The winter so far has dumped 72.5 inches of snow on Boston, more than twice the amount at this date last year, according to National Weather Service records for Logan International Airport. And the $90 million in costs for keeping highways clear — plow contractors, staff overtime, road salt, fuel, and other expenses — is already about 50 percent more than the $60 million that DOT budgeted for the year, said Arthur Shea, chief financial officer for the department.

If the supplemental budget sought by Governor Deval Patrick does not pass in the next month or so, “the department would have a pretty significant cash flow problem,’’ Shea told DOT board members Monday, adding that he would be lobbying House and Senate Ways and Means Committee leaders for help.

The House and Senate chairmen of the joint committee said yesterday that they recognize the need for the money and expect it to be approved in the next few weeks.

“We understand with the extraordinary winter what snow and ice removal has cost, and we may not even be done yet,’’ said Senator Stephen M. Brewer, a Barre Democrat. In an average Boston winter, 11 inches of snow falls after Feb. 23.

With fewer miles to cover, snow removal on the T is less costly, but it still meant $7.5 million in spending, which includes overtime and materials for the season, before the last storm. The T does not budget a specific amount for snow removal.

The final snow removal figure — and other expenses that are outpacing revenues — could put the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on track to finish fiscal 2011 about $12 million short on a budget of more than $1.6 billion, said Jonathan R. Davis, deputy general manager and chief financial officer.

Fare and parking receipts, though up slightly, have not met more ambitious projections built into the MBTA budget, while expenses are again running over budget for The Ride, a federally mandated service that provides door-to-door trips for those unable to use the conventional transit system because of physical or mental disabilities.

Usage of The Ride is up about 12 percent this year over last year, and costs have risen nearly fivefold since 2000, to more than $90 million.

But those costs are offset elsewhere. At last count, the T had 5,943 employees, the fewest in more than a decade and about 200 below the number foreseen in this year’s budget. That has helped the authority save on benefits, though it has meant an increase in overtime, something the T is working to rein in, Davis said.

The T also stands to benefit from diesel fuel locked in at a relatively low price and from a renewed federal tax rebate for using compressed natural gas, and it is trying to generate $13 million or more from the sale or lease of surplus property.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.