Mass. senators reject plan to oversee MBTA money
BOSTON—The state Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposal to replace the MBTA's governing board with a new five-member control board that would oversee the finances of the ailing transit system for at least the next three years.
The plan, offered by a bipartisan group of lawmakers as an amendment to a bailout bill for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, was defeated on a voice vote. The Senate later approved the bailout on a 26-9 vote.
Sponsors of the proposal to create the independent control panel said the T's current board of directors had repeatedly failed to bring the agency's finances under control.
"The existing MBTA board has worked very hard to try to find fiscal stability and sustainability for the MBTA, but that has eluded them," said Sen. Gale Candaras, D-Wilbraham, at a news conference before the Senate debate. "We believe they have exhausted the subject and they are overwhelmed by the Herculean problems that confront them."
Under the plan, the control board would be responsible for creating and implementing a long-term plan for the MBTA's financial stability while maintaining quality service and affordability. The panel would have all the powers of the T's current board including fare-setting responsibility and would be modeled after a state-controlled board that oversaw the finances of Springfield from 2004 to 2009 after the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.
Candaras and another Democratic sponsor of the amendment, Sen. James Welch, of West Springfield, represent western Massachusetts districts outside the T's service area. Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, and GOP senators Robert Hedlund, of Weymouth, and Richard Ross, of Attleborough, also backed the amendment.
The bailout bill, which has been approved in the House, would provide state help to the MBTA to close a remaining deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1 and stave off deeper cuts in service. The T's board, originally faced with a $159 million deficit, voted earlier to raise fares an average of 23 percent and reduce service, which officials estimate would reduce the deficit by about two-thirds.
The bill calls for the state to transfer to the MBTA about $50 million from a state fund made of up motor vehicle inspection fees.
Tarr said something has to change.
"That kind of scavenging through the state budget is not the way to operate public transportation," he said.
The senators said it was the third time in the last decade the T has sought a bailout. Since 2000, the T has received 20 percent of statewide sales tax revenues.
State officials and lawmakers agree that the bill would only provide a one-year fix for the T's financial woes and that long-term solutions were needed.
The plan called for a control board made up of the state secretary of transportation, the MBTA's current board chairman and three other members chosen by the attorney general, the inspector general and the secretary of administration and finance.
Candaras acknowledged before the debate that it would be difficult to convince many other senators that it was time for as dramatic a step as supplanting the T's current board.
The Senate also rejected several other proposed amendments to the bailout, including one that would have required the MBTA to repay the money and another that would have required the T to fully detail the funding sources for any future projects such as the proposed expansion of the Green Line to Medford.
An amendment offered by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, to limit fare increases for seniors and the disabled to no greater than 25 percent also was defeated. Users of The Ride, a service for disabled passengers, will be hit with increases of 100 percent to 150 percent under the fare hikes scheduled for July 1.
Senate leaders promised to conduct a study of the impact of the new fares on the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Sen. Steven Brewer, chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, backed the bailout but said that it was merely a "piecemeal" effort to address the T's financial woes and that lawmakers would be back next year seeking a permanent solution.
"Where have I seen this movie before?" asked Brewer.
The bill is expected to now go to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the two branches.