BOSTON -- The legislature, which has extended numerous fiscal lifelines to the MBTA over the years, is taking a wait-and-see approach to the agency's latest bout with financial turmoil although one top leader says lawmakers will have to act this spring.
While facing pressure from constituents who may need to pay more to ride the T and see fewer services, legislative leaders say they won't intervene to rescue the services for millions of commuters until the agency presents its own plan to close a $159 million projected deficit, which is expected within a month.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the News Service Tuesday that a hearing on T fare hikes and service cuts in Winthrop on Monday night drew hundreds of concerned residents.
"Right now, I think this is the issue that all reps are hearing out there. This is by far the issue that we're hearing. I don't remember the last time I saw a public hearing attended by this many people," he said. "There are some folks who are screaming for increased taxes and whatnot and there are a lot of folks yelling - and they yell 'no we don't' want to pay more taxes.' The bottom line, and I said this last night, is I think it's much too premature for us to be stepping in."
DeLeo added: "I think before we talk about a legislative fix, I think you really need to see what the T is going to do. Let them play out and see what their answer is. What other places can they save? What other places can they have savings or what not? I think we have to let that play out a little bit before we get involved."
DeLeo noted that he's received information about proposals to move certain MBTA services under the more fiscally sound Massachusetts Port Authority, although he said has questions about their feasibility. He also cited a recent report by Inspector General Gregory Sullivan estimating that $60 million could be saved within the MBTA's program for the disabled, known as the RIDE, one of the budget-busters that T officials say contributed to budgetary imbalances. MBTA officials also say soaring energy costs and a $5.2 billion debt burden have been sapping the agency's funding.
Next fiscal year, which begins July 1, the MBTA anticipates receiving about $1.63 billion in revenue compared to $1.79 billion in expenses. MBTA documents show the agency expects to pay $442 million in debt service next fiscal year, an $80 million increase from this year, representing a 22 percent increase. Disability insurance costs are also set to rise sharply - by 173 percent, from $16.8 million to $46 million.
On the other revenue side of the ledger, the MBTA is anticipating the receipt of $794 million in sales taxes - a 2.3 percent increase - plus an annual $160 million boost that the Legislature began providing in 2009. Fare revenue is expected to climb 1.9 percent to $463 million.
To close the budget gap, the MBTA has proposed two solutions, one that would raise fares 43 percent and impose cuts to several dozen bus routes, ferry service and commuter rail, and another that would raise fares 35 percent but hit commuters with more drastic reductions in service, including the elimination of weekend and late-night commuter rail, as well as weekend service on the E Line subway.
With gas prices rising and the economy on a slow recovery path, the MBTA is nearing the end of hearings to gather public feedback. Each stop has featured hundreds of attendees demanding that the agency limit the pain to riders or, barring that, for the Legislature to step in and bail out the system.
The board of the MBTA is required to ratify a budget by April 15, although transportation officials say they're more likely to act at an April 6 meeting, just over five weeks away.
Senate President Therese Murray, in an interview on WCVB's "On the Record" Sunday, pledged legislative action after the hearing process plays out.
"There will have to be something done, and once they finish the public hearings that they're doing across the state and their board comes to us and says this is what we have, this is what we have to do, then we'll have to act," she said.