Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Beacon Hill to tackle T's massive debt

State lawmakers led by State Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge), State Reps. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) and Carl M. Sciortino Jr (D-Medford-Somerville) will introduce legislation this week to try and restructure the MBTA's massive debt which is now estimated to be $8 billion dollars.

Barrios told the Herald “The T’s finances are in a downward spiral. Each year their debt increases and their ability to improve service declines. It will only get better if the Legislature addresses the problem.”

T General Manager Daniel Grabauskas says " “It’s no secret that the T has a structural financial problem that’s driven primarily by debt,” he said. “It’s a serious impediment to our ability to spend what we need . . . to maintain the system.”

Eric Bourassa of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group tells the Globe "The T has serious financial problems that go way beyond fixing through efficiencies and fare increases, The T's huge debt challenges the long-term viability of the authority and needs to be seriously addressed by the Legislature."

Now how the T got into this fiscal mess goes back to 1999 when the legislature tried to put the brakes on out of control spending at the T. The T before the new funding law was passed could run up a huge deficit and the Commonwealth would make up the shortfall. That prompted the current funding law which at the time most thought was a good idea except for some towns that suddenly had to pay more for T services. Pioneer Institute a Boston area "think tank" published it's views on forward funding in 2002. Keep in mind cities like Lowell and Brockton broke away from the MBTA years ago and became part of local transit authorities to curb costs. Those 2 cities were served by the former Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway which the T absorbed in 1964. The only present MBTA bus garages in the former Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway territory, are in Lynn and in Quincy.

The Commonwealth also funds transit authorities in Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford-Fall River, Attleboro-Taunton, Cape Cod, Greenfield, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Fitchburg, Pittsfield, Cape Ann and Lawrence-Haverhill. These RTA's are all corporate and political subdivisions of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Executive Office of Transportation.

In 1973, the Massachusetts State Legislature produced Chapter 161B of the Massachusetts General Laws to prevent the creation of centrally controlled agencies similar to the MBTA. In doing so, Chapter 161B recognized the individual needs of cities and towns within the Commonwealth and acknowledged the importance of local control over transportation services. Chapter 161B safeguards the empowerment of cities and towns through a series of checks and balances that clearly illustrate the powers and duties of RTAs, including requirements relating to financing, contracting, and the issuance of bonds. Within the framework of Chapter 161B, the role given to the state (EOT and EOAF) maintains the balance of state and local control in the delivery of public transit services According to the statute, regional transit authorities cannot operate service directly, but instead must contract with private operators for the provision of service.

In other words the legislature knew that the MBTA was a bottomless pit and made sure that the same mistakes were not made in the rest of the state and in effect was saying Boston and Boston alone should pay for Boston buses. Of course it didn't work out that way and taxpayers statewide help pay for the T through the sales tax contributions. Of course you might be asking yourself why the legislature didn't order the MBTA to contract with private operators to help contain costs. ( as it does with the Commuter Rail for example ) It would have been political suicide if they tried as the Boston Carmen's Union would never allow that to happen. The BCU represents over 6,000 T employees and is a major political force on Beacon Hill. Old time legislators remember very well the fallout that occurred when the MBTA was shutdown by the Commonwealth in December of 1980 because the T ran out of money. Downtown merchants suffered major losses during the holiday shopping season and took their wrath to Beacon Hill.

So as you can see this is nothing new and the T's problems today date back decades as politicians looked for quick fixes and never tackled the real problems. Will Beacon Hill come to the rescue when this bill is submitted? Perhaps but there is still the mindset in the rest of the state that Boston should pay for Boston buses

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