Massachusetts State Representative - 34th Middlesex District

Dozens of lawmakers meet with MBTA head amid talks on fares, services

Cape Ann Beacon

Less than two months before the MBTA is expected to ratify a budget that will pile fare increases and service cuts onto anxious commuters, 34 lawmakers came face to face with T general manager in a State House hearing room but offered little in the way of alternative solutions.

Jonathan Davis, who took over as MBTA general manager last fall, informed lawmakers that the T's budget is likely to be in place by April 6, when the agency's board meets to finalize plans to close a $161 million deficit.

One proposal would raise fares an average 43 percent across all modes of transportation, bringing subway rides to $2.25, lowering a subsidy for elderly riders, and sending fares for riders with disabilities soaring. Another proposal would limit fare increases to 34 percent but impose service cuts that agency officials acknowledge could leave some riders without a viable way to get to work or doctor appointments.

The frustration at Thursday's meeting of the Legislature's MBTA caucus was palpable: Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville) noted that her city's residents own the fewest cars per capita in Massachusetts, and many would be stranded under one of the T's service cut proposal.

"What do we say to these people? Move? Buy a car? I don't have an answer," she said.

Although Provost has offered a package of revenue increases to support the state transportation system - including a 28-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax - none of her provisions were discussed during the hour-long meeting. awmakers have been largely silent on plans to enact a short-term fix for the MBTA's fiscal woes, which T officials attribute to skyrocketing energy costs, increasingly costly service for disabled riders and a $5.2 billion debt burden that eats up 30 percent of the T's budget every year. House and Senate leaders have said they're waiting for the results of a series of hearings being led by Davis and the MBTA before weighing in on possible solutions.

Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) offered the only nod to the possibility of a solution to avoid fare hikes and service cuts, asking Davis whether the MBTA would have the flexibility to undo any of its budget decisions if the Legislature offered a lifeline later in the year.

"I would say we have flexibility," Davis replied.

Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), co-chair of the Committee on Transportation, attended the hearing and reiterated his call for a long-term, statewide transportation funding solution. He urged all lawmakers and staff at the hearing to reread a 2007 special commission's report that found that the state underfunds its transportation system by $1 billion per year. And he said that in his district, "We're ready to go off a cliff in terms of transportation."

"We need to come together in a bipartisan way to find a solution to this problem or we're going to be looking at massive problems in the next couple of years," he said.

Only one Republican, Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk), attended the meeting, although aides to several Republican lawmakers were on hand. Several members of House leadership - including Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing (D-Boston), floor division chairman Paul Donato (D-Medford), and Ways and Means Assistant Vice Chair Martha Walz (D-Boston) - were also on hand.

Rep. Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury), who worried aloud about her own bus service being cut, fretted about increasing the cost of rides for elderly residents, and she wondered whether Davis had reached out to the Obama administration for a lifeline.

"Have you asked the feds to kick in?" she asked. "We can't do it in the commonwealth."

Davis described the hundreds of millions of dollars that the MBTA receives from the federal government but noted that some funding sources could be squeezed in the coming years.

Rep. Thomas Conroy (D-Wayland) wondered what percentage of Massachusetts commuters rely on public transportation. Davis said about 55 percent of work trips and 45 percent of all trips into Boston involved public transportation.

After the hearing, Rep. Stephen Smith (D-Everett) told the News Service that he hoped MBTA brass or legislative leaders would considering asking the business and nonprofit communities to kick in funding to preserve T services that their employees and clients depend on.

"Maybe someone could reach out to some of these universities and these hospitals and some of these major businesses that we have whose employees use [the MBTA] - maybe some of these nonprofits, just to kind of put their heads together," he told the News Service. "As long as they see that the T is really using the money properly, let them look at the T's budget, that they're using every efficiency that they can."

During the meeting, Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), co-chair of the MBTA caucus, said the state was in the midst of a transportation funding "crisis" and said that if the agency's proposed cuts take effect "it will be devastating for individual people and businesses."

"We've done a lot of expenditures to try to provide a good business climate in this commonwealth," she said. "There is nothing we could spend on at this level that would make a bigger difference."