Riders await buses at the MBTA’s Harvard station. The agency, facing a $161 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year, is threatening cuts in service and increases in fares. (Photo: Elizabeth Galle)

On an ordinary day, there would be little standing in the way of city officials hearing what developers have in mind for East Cambridge’s 22-story irritant, the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse. But before they can get to that meeting tonight at 7, there’s a major distraction at 5:30 p.m.: a special City Council meeting intended to elect a mayor and plot strategy to save the city’s bus and T service.

The city is designed “to require use of the T,” in the words of state Rep. Alice K. Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat and former mayor who helped set the agenda for the special meeting by proposing a higher gas tax and tolls for cars entering Greater Boston. (Or, in the words of councillor Minka vanBeuzekom, “Cambridge does not work without public transit.”)

“Fundamentally, we need to move toward a statewide consensus for the MBTA,” Wolf said in a letter to councillors in the run-up to today’s meeting. “That consensus will need to involve the use of state coffers to meet most of the T’s deficit for the next fiscal year.”

But no one thinks it will be easy to convince the entire state it’s important to maintain local T, bus and commuter rail service without a massive increase in cost to users, since residents outside the reach of public transit aren’t likely to care that the two scenarios proposed by the state could do everything from eliminating the only bus running to the Cambridge Main Library to literally derailing Cambridge development in general, since development in many parts of the state has already long been derailed by a bad economy while Cambridge has gone on bursting with construction. The city’s full delegation of state legislators is invited to the meeting to provide ammunition for when senators and state reps must convince their peers from Massachusetts’ far corners.

The council meeting, at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall, is also meant to ensure the state transportation officials who will ultimately implement service cuts and fare increases see a strong turnout of Cambridge residents when they hold a meeting at the Senior Center in Central Square from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 29.

“It’s essential that as many residents as possible show up to really discuss the impacts of those cuts and fare increases on riders,” said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, during a Feb. 13 council meeting.

If councillors vote on a mayor, it will be at least the ninth ballot since their inauguration in January. Last term they went nearly into March without a mayor, but the rhetoric starting Feb. 13 gave urgency to this term’s election, with candidate Marjorie Decker proposing voting this week despite Presidents Day bumping the usual Monday council meeting.

If anything could overshadow the issue, though, it’s the MBTA’s problems and its draconian solutions.

The budget gap

The agency has few options to solve its budget problems, some of which stem from inheriting millions in debt from the Big Dig when that project blew its schedule and ballooned in cost to $14.6 billion from $2.6 billion. The MBTA has a projected $161 million budget gap next fiscal year, according to state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, growing to a $330 million in three years.

“This isn’t one of those situations where the MBTA can simply get ride of waste, fraud and abuse to right its ship,” said Murphy, who spent two years as deputy secretary of governmental affairs for the Executive Office of Transportation. “They really do have a limited number of tools that they themselves control to try to address that, which is why you see proposals that are really an unpalatable mix of either service cuts or fare increases. It’s sort of ‘pick your poison.’”

It would have been better if the agency had been making small increases in fares year over year to raise money, he said.

Councillor Craig Kelley said he’d seen examples of little-used commuter rail routes that gave him some understanding of what drove the proposed cuts. Still, Murphy acknowledged:

“The MBTA’s gone purely by numbers without looking at what’s behind the numbers and at what some of those cuts mean for economic development. Huron Village would lose a significant amount of its business if you were to cut those services to the extent they’re talking about … cutting E Line service on the green line is of significant concern to residents of East Cambridge. Under scenario two you would be eliminating E Line service on the weekends, which is a really dramatic impact to Lechmere … if you can’t take your bus to the library, it makes a big difference. In some ways it’s easy to say that Harvard-to-Kendall bus is duplicative of red line service, but that doesn’t take into account people who are along that route or who need to go to places along that route. [And] there’s a whole host of buses that head out from Alewife station, but the potential impact on the city of those buses being cut is additional cars that are likely to make their way into the Alewife area, which is already fairly congested. So there are a whole host of ripple effects that come from this.”

To escape those effects, city officials and legislators need to present a broader framework for solutions to the MBTA “as opposed to simply deciding between the Scylla of fare increases and the Charybdis of service cuts, and instead to see if there’s a way to make our way through those rocky shores,” Murphy said.

“So helpful to have a reader of the classics with us when we’re dealing with the MBTA,” councillor Henrietta Davis said drily, noting the microeconomic impact on the city as well as the macro: “There are people who live in parts of the city because there are buses that get them to and from work. Suddenly without bus service that’s adequate, then what do they do?”

Tim Toomey, a councillor who is also a state representative for Cambridge and Somerville, was already thinking ahead to the difficulties of crafting laws for any funding solution. A gas tax such as Wolf proposes, for instance, would hit hard on working-class families who rely on their cars, and he suggested the tax be on luxury cars only. (He also suggested that those who could afford to, including the councillors, could opt to pay the higher-percentage option on their state income tax forms.) Consensus would be hard to reach, he said. “They are trying to get a statewide movement going, but is going to be very difficult … it is an election year. I hope there’s the will power to tackle this,” he said.

When state transportation officials arrive for the Feb. 29 meeting, the Senior Center will undoubtedly be too small to hold the crowd of people waiting to comment on their proposals, interim mayor Ken Reeves said. (Malden, which is served by the orange line, drew some 400 people to a Thursday meeting. A meeting for the South End and Roxbury drew 500.)

“The Senior Center will not hold all these people,” Reeves said. “We may want to give [MBTA officials] a heads-up.”

“My guess is what they’ll say is that they’ve already had it advertised,” Murphy told him. “On the other hand, that’s certainly a statement, when you’ve got people overflowing a room. It sends a message of how much the community cares about this issue.”