Rick Dimino

In the current state budget process on Beacon Hill, transportation is on track to be a winner. Both Gov. Maura Healey’s initial budget recommendations and the House budget show a commitment to enhancing transportation infrastructure and public transit service. The state Senate will finalize its budget this month and there’s optimism that this momentum will continue. While these steps forward are welcome, the looming challenge facing Massachusetts’ transportation system next year is real and could jeopardize all of this recent progress.

The impending fiscal cliff facing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) looms large on the horizon. In just 14 months, the MBTA is projected to begin producing a staggering $600 million deficit every year. This amount does not include funding to reduce the system’s state of good repair infrastructure backlog, which is currently estimated to be $25 billion. It also does not include costs to meet the commonwealth’s climate emission reduction goals, nor costs to meet the growing need to address resiliency needs for the system. The $600 million funding gap is simply to operating the system at the current standards that exists today.

While these critical infrastructure upgrades will pose additional financial burdens, the primary driver of the MBTA’s fiscal cliff is the widening gap between operating costs and current revenue projections. Fare collections at the MBTA continue to lag below pre-pandemic levels. This situation is common for all transit systems throughout the nation. For the past few years, the MBTA could use federally funded transit aid to avoid a budget crisis, but this federal aid will finally run out in 2024.

To give context on the size of this upcoming challenge in Massachusetts, we can look at this year’s state budget process. The House is proposing to spend just over $600 million from the Millionaires Amendment surtax on transportation programs throughout the entire state. This surtax money will be used to enhance public transit service outside of the MBTA district through Regional Transit Authority service, provide supplemental aid for roads and bridges repairs, and support a major increase in transportation infrastructure plans.

The surtax will also be used to help the MBTA this year. These plans are so justified, as surtax was promised to help improve the T. The House and Senate are proposing almost $140 million to avoid cuts in service this year, with smaller amounts to start the MBTA low-income fare program and improve safety issues.

But starting in 14 months, with the MBTA operating budget gap reaching $600 million every year going forward, it could pit all of these programs and statewide priorities funded by the new surtax in competition against each other.

Cutting Service is the Wrong Choice

Some may argue that cutting service levels is necessary to balance a budget. The WMATA transit system that serves Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., is considering cutting service in half to balance their budget. This option must be avoided in Massachusetts. Transportation is one of the cornerstones of our economy and without safe, reliable and affordable public transit service, our economic growth will be threatened. Cutting transit service will increase traffic congestion, undermine climate emission reduction plans and would run counter to our fundamental support for neighborhoods and transit-depended riders. Scaling back the MBTA is not the future business and civic leaders should want to see.

The MBTA’s fiscal cliff is one of the reasons Healey created the Transportation Finance Task Force. This group is asked to develop recommendations by this December. The task force is also expected to consider the climate needs of the commonwealth and a future where gasoline tax revenue declines with the increase in electric vehicles. This is no easy assignment, but it is essential that this group of business leaders, transportation and environmental advocates, and interested stakeholders can find consensus on specific recommendations.

 The Cost of Doing Nothing

There is a real cost of doing nothing, especially as the MBTA fiscal cliff is unavoidable. Failure to develop consensus from the task force on a new comprehensive transportation finance plan will likely mean cuts in transit service, increased traffic congestion and greater obstacles for our economy. It would mean choosing to keep relying on an obsolete transit system that is currently unable to meet the needs of this region.

It is imperative that the public dialogue is shifted away from specific revenue ideas to a conversation about the kind of transportation system we want and the people of Massachusetts deserve. Focusing on this vision should help unite a coalition and create a willingness to act together. Then, with that vision established, we can work on how to achieve it through sustained investment, innovative financing mechanisms and agreement among stakeholders.

We are making progress on transportation this year, but it is a critical time to think about the future.  We all must ensure this recent progress does not slip away, and work on the blueprint for a stronger, cleaner transportation system that properly serves the entire commonwealth for the next generation.

Rick Dimino is president emeritus of A Better City and a member of the MassDOT board of directors.

What Type of Transportation System Do We Want?

by Rick Dimino time to read: 3 min