August 11, 2016
By Senator Richard J. Ross
Over a year ago I expressed concerns with the unstable finances of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Since then, I joined Senate Republicans in filing an amendment to the FY16 budget, which led to the creation of the Fiscal Management Control Board (FMCB). The amendment proposed that the board would provide strict oversight of the beleaguered agency.
Shortly after it was formed, the FMCB conducted a review of the major problems the MBTA was facing. From that review we learned that the T has an unsustainable operating budget while not preserving its core system and struggling to get projects completed. Not only did they have frequent leadership changes, but they also were found to have weak workplace protocols and lacked customer focus. The most significant finding was that the MBTA was not underfunded, but simply lacked the management and direction needed to effect serious reforms.
Fortunately, the Commonwealth endured a calm winter this year, and the MBTA had little to no operating issues caused by recent harsh weather conditions. However, over the past year, the MBTA has been weathering its own storm. As the agency’s FMCB finished its first year since it was enacted in 2015, we now have a clear understanding of the extent of reform necessary to transform this part of our transportation system.
The Commonwealth has been throwing money into a beast that cannot contain itself. The MBTA has been given various resources and opportunities to get back on track from state contracts to a well-rounded capital budget. The system has had the funding and resources, but has never been able to take advantage of them sufficiently.
With a flat lined operating budget the T required no additional funding increases for FY 16. But due to no increase in ridership, the T has yet again turned to a fare increase to make ends meet. Recently, the Legislature passed an amendment that would prohibit MBTA fares from being increased more than once within a two year period as well as being increased more than 7 percent during a two year period. I supported this amendment because I believe the T should not depend on its consumers to be the solution to the issue. The legislation also provides flexibility to the MBTA, rather than have the agency returning to the legislature with new requests.
New findings show that the T’s money management process contains serious risks. In a recent consultant’s review, it was discovered that the MBTA’s cash handling procedures were not secure. Doors to the money room where the facility handles nearly $200 million per year were found not alarmed or access controlled – a flaw that the system cannot be willing to risk or ignore under current circumstances.
Another major concern the MBTA is facing is the mismanagement and severe underproduction of its pension system. The system loses $89 million a year in assets. The public records bill that I supported made T records public, including details of their disappointing pension fund. After management’s frequently failed reforms, Governor Baker recommends it be managed by the state’s PRIM system this January.
Governor Baker’s administration has done a great job when it comes to turning these problems into solutions and giving the MBTA the momentum it needs. They have pushed the T to use state contracts to purchase millions of dollars’ worth of goods and services at lower costs. The administration also helped them save money in areas such as supporting the suspension of the Green Line Extension for its redesign, cutting off hundreds of unused wireless devices, and encouraging a digital advertising program to boost revenue.
We can only hope to have another mild winter, but this year we need to fully prepare for it. The T expects to double the funds spent on signals, switches, and tracks that are long overdue for replacement. With a focus on operating expenses and performance, any savings need to be invested into its infrastructure and construction so that we can see more projects on time and on budget.
It is clear that the MBTA will have to undergo substantial changes. With the T’s rising operating expense and plateaued ridership, I hope to see changes in the administrative processes, money management, the pension system, infrastructure and various other problematic issues setting back our transit authority. The hardworking citizens of Massachusetts deserve a reliable, sustainable and consistent transportation system and it is time we follow through with that promise.