THE MBTA’S oversight board on Monday pushed back against relentless criticism from a host of critics for refusing to undo service cuts and for failing to move beyond what a Sunday Boston Globe editorial called “the small-bore thinking of the past six years.”
Joseph Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said he couldn’t remain silent about the editorial, which he described as “uninformed” and full of representations that were “wrong” or “mischaracterized.”
The Globe editorial focused most of its ire on Gov. Charlie Baker, criticizing him for not restoring service cuts and for failing to embrace congestion road pricing, rail service between central and western Massachusetts, fee hikes on Uber and Lyft trips, and a broad transformation of the I-90 Allston interchange.
Relying heavily on the urgings of transportation advocates, the Globe editorial accused the governor of small-bore transportation thinking and failing to pursue transformational projects.
“The governor doesn’t need me to speak up for him, but I think this was inherently unfair,” said Aiello, ticking off a long list of policies ($1.7 billion in capital investments last year) and projects dealing with bus, commuter rail, subway, and fare collection – all of which the T describes as transformational.
“People may be dissatisfied with the pace at which we do this, and I get that, but there is a lot on the plate of the staff at the T. They work like the dickens and they need to be defended,” Aiello said.
During the public testimony portion of the hearing, transportation advocates criticized the T for not using $250 million in new federal funding to restore all of the services that were cut when ridership plummeted during the pandemic.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak used $17 million of the $250 million to restore service cuts, shifted $178 million to replenish the T’s capital spending budget, and set aside the balance of the money to deal with an expected shortfall in the fiscal year beginning in July.
Representatives from the Conservation Law Foundation, the business group A Better City, andTransitMatters all said the T should immediately use the new federal funding to eliminate all service cuts. One advocate said the T is leaving “essential workers out in the cold” waiting for buses that never come. Others said the service cuts may be difficult to restore quickly once ridership rebounds. Many have also complained that the T isn’t even saying how much savings the service cuts will yield.
“What started out as a real budget crisis looks more and more like political machinations every day,” said Jarred Johnson of TransitMatters.
But the members of the control board are sticking with the plan. Control bord members said their goal is to provide service levels needed to meet current ridership needs rather than running empty trains, buses, and commuter rail trains. They said they will take a look in March at possibly restoring more service if there are signs that riders are returning, but otherwise intend to hold off until it does.
Poftak said on Monday that ridership is not picking up at the T. The budget situation is also fluid. The T is balancing its budget this year with the help of $605 million in federal CARES Act funds and using more than $400 million in federal capital funds to cover operating expenses. Poftak is using some of the new federal money to offset the drawdown of the federal capital funds and banking the remainder of the money to help restore service and curb deficits in the coming fiscal year.
MBTA budget officials on Monday reported a net revenue gain of $3.5 million in December, which was transferred to a deficiency fund that is expected to grow to $314 million by the end of the fiscal year in July. That money is being held in reserve to help balance this year’s budget and next year’s. The budget presentation made it sound as if the money is surplus, but members of the control board said the funds are being set aside to deal with financial shortfalls ahead.
“The last thing we want our customers to think is we’re holding back money and cutting their service,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board.