THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD, scheduled to expire at the end of June, looks like it could turn into a political football on Beacon Hill.
The House’s transportation funding legislation calls for at least a three-year extension of the existing five-member Fiscal and Management Control Board, complete with the requirement that it meet 36 times a year.
Gov. Charlie Baker, in his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, called for the creation of a new seven-member board that would include the secretary of transportation; a representative of the municipalities that contribute revenue to the T; and five gubernatorial appointees, including a safety expert, a rider, an expert in transportation operations, and an expert in finance. Under Baker’s proposal, the board would have to meet a minimum of 12 times a year.
At a press conference on Thursday, Baker said his proposal is grounded in recommendations from a safety panel hired by the control board, which called for fewer meetings and at least one member with a safety background.
“It’s really important that we take the guidance and advice that we got from the safety panel, which said you really need to get some people on here who know something about safety and transportation,” Baker said. “And secondly, you need to limit the number of times they meet. One of the major points they made in that report was that the management at the T spends so much time preparing for and cleaning up after their FMCB meeting that they’re not spending time worrying about, managing, and operating the system.”
House leaders say they included their extension of the existing control board in the funding legislation because budget bills often don’t gain final approval until after June 30, when the control board is scheduled to expire. They also indicated the House is likely to debate next week a number of amendments to the control board provision, which could alter its makeup.
What to do with the control board could become a hot issue. The board has garnered considerable praise since it was formed five years ago for helping to bring transparency and managerial stability to the agency. It has also become more independent of the Baker administration, pushing more aggressive action in a number of areas, including subway-like service on the commuter rail system.
Transit advocates have also expressed concern that the T is entering a critical phase, with major improvements on the Red, Orange, and Green lines about to come online. The advocates worry that those efforts could be hampered if a new board lacking familiarity with the projects comes on board midstream.
One complicating factor: Most members of the current all-volunteer board have said they are eager to leave the board once the end of June rolls around.
The chair and vice chair of the control board could not be reached for comment Thursday.
$6 million for taxis, livery companies
The House transportation bill would up the funding for MassDevelopment to help taxis and livery companies to $6 million a year even though earlier set-asides have not produced any results so far.
When Beacon Hill approved a 20-cent fee on ride-hailing trips in 2016, the legislation directed that 25 percent of the money collected over the five-year period from 2017 through 2021 be set aside for MassDevelopment to assist taxis and livery companies.
In 2017 and 2018, MassDevelopment collected a total of $7.3 million and launched a study to determine the best way to support taxi and livery firms. That study still hasn’t been completed, even though taxis and livery companies are being swamped by the ride-hailing firms Uber and Lyft.
The House transportation bill would significantly increase fees on ride-hailing trips, and directs that $6 million a year of the fee revenue go to MassDevelopment to help taxis and livery companies. The funding arrangement with MassDevelopment would sunset at the end of 2021.
Who exactly is being incentivized?
One provision in the House transportation bill that is causing a lot of people to scratch their heads would bar ride-hailing companies from passing along to their customers higher proposed fees on each ride.
Under current law, ride-hailing firms such as Uber and Lyft pay the state a 20-cent fee per ride. The House bill would keep the fee at 20 cents for shared rides and raise it to $1.20 for single rides and $2.20 for luxury rides.
The fee structure appears designed to incentivize customers to use shared rides to reduce traffic congestion, but the bill specifically bars Uber and Lyft from passing along the new, higher fees to their customers.
House leaders say they are trying to thread a needle with the provision, protecting riders from rate hikes while incentivizing Uber and Lyft to come up with ways to steer more of their customers to shared rides.
Uber and Lyft say the approach doesn’t make any sense. “Anyone serious about changing rider behavior and encouraging people to share their rides would want to create a financial incentive and pass the fee onto riders,” said Uber in a statement.
A Lyft spokeswoman said the House proposal will drive up costs. “Raising rideshare taxes by over 500 percent could hurt low-income riders and reduce the transportation options available, especially for those outside Boston,” she said. “We support public transit but this plan is damaging public policy and must be revisited.”