Saturday, May 18, 2024

Cambridge officials’ plan to solve the region’s imminent mass transit crisis is drawing praise from state legislators, with Rep. Will Brownsberger calling it “a sophisticated document with a lot of good ideas” and Sen. Sal DiDomenico saying, “I’ve been to several of these meetings across my district, and the plan you have here is probably the best we’ve seen.”

“This plan is a good step to show we have solutions, and we’re very short on solutions,” said DiDomenico, referring to a report prepared by Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development that looks for ways to keep a $161 million MBTA budget crisis from leading to traumatic and imminent fare hikes and cuts in service on bus, T and commuter rail lines serving the city and region.

The report was presented at a special City Council meeting last Wednesday meant to prepare for an MBTA hearing coming this Wednesday. The plan has short-term and long-term parts, since the agency will face a similar budget crisis every year unless a permanent solution is found.

The short-term proposals:

Increase fares by 25 percent in the next fiscal year. This would raise about $80 million and move the T toward a “fare recovery ratio” closer to what’s found in other cities with mass transit systems, rather than go the whole way through a single shocking increase proposed at 35 percent or 43 percent in two proposals from the MBTA. The ratio represents how much of the cost of running the system comes from riders, and the local figure is 36 percent; the increase would bring it to 39 percent, while other cities with mass transit have fare recovery ratios of about 40 percent to 45 percent.

Continue small fare increases every two years. The MBTA would eventually reach and maintain a fare recovery ratio of 45 percent.

Let the legislature find the other $80 million outside the MBTA. For example, MassPort could take over some ferry and silver line costs, since the line brings people to its Logan Airport (and since MassPort was “one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Central Artery Tunnel project,” while somewhat arbitrarily inherited debt from the Big Dig is in large part what’s dragging down the MBTA).

The long-term proposals reflected a roundup of work from others, with Murphy saying “it made sense for us not to reinvent the wheel, but look at the excellent work that’s been done by other agencies” such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, MassInc. and MBTA Advisory Board. Among those Murphy highlighted:

Raise the gas tax to reflect inflation. The state gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1991, when it made up about 19 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas. The tax now accounts for only about 6 percent. “Indexed to inflation, that would certainly go a long way to” filling the transit budget gap, Murphy said.

Put in place a per-mile usage fee. Odometers would be read at annual vehicle inspections and drivers charged a per-mile fee; the more driving had been done, the more money the state would get — spurring people to use public transportation more and allowing the state to basically put tolls in place without having to build, maintain or staff actual tolls or toll-collecting devices.

Use untouched revenue from the underground storage tank program. About $75 million is collected into this program every year from gas sales, but only up to $35 million is needed annually for the intended environmental cleanups, according to the MAPC. The remaining $40 million could be directed to the MBTA instead of to the state’s general fund.

But while Murphy thought discussion about finding longer-term solutions could take place in the next fiscal year, which starts this summer, state Rep. Martha “Marty” Walz said that would be too late. “There’s an emerging consensus that it is going to have two parts,” she said of a budget cure, but since the governor would be presenting his budget for the 2014 fiscal year in January, in less than a year, “as we begin to think about that longer-term solution, we need to think about it now … it needs to be worked on almost immediately so that we are not in crisis a year from now. We’re going to have to move on two tracks: What are we going to do in time for July 1, and simultaneously preparing for that statewide solution.”

Either way, solutions to replace failed sales-tax funding have to be found fast that not just keep the system running but allow $20 million in long-delayed repairs and pay off what state Rep. Pat Jehlen identified Wednesday as massive amounts of debt. “They’re the most highly leveraged transit system in the country,” Jehlen said. “They spend as much on debt service as they take in in fares.”

First-term councillor Minka vanBeuzekom arrived with her own five-page document with dozens of “small actions the City of Cambridge can take” to solve the transit crisis, some of which overlapped with Murphy’s document. Her first page of suggestions included advocacy for surcharges for riding the T at peak hours, exploring selling naming rights to T stations and bus shelters in exchange for maintenance, requiring the city’s universities to provide monthly passes for their roughly 43,000 students and increasing Cambridge’s annual assessment to the agency to be on par with Boston’s, which would mean giving the agency $13 million a year instead of the current $8.7 million. (A suggestion to move to single-person operation of trains is already planned for implementation in July, Walz said, although the agency at one time planned it for last fall.)

Selling the gas tax

The gas tax plan has drawn the most conversation, with officials and residents universally identifying it as a tough sell especially in parts of the state far from Greater Boston and its interconnected mass of public transit. Their testimony and public comment have suggested ways to ensure people throughout the state see benefits from boosting the coffers of a mass transit agency most associated with large cities.

“They’re very heavily reliant on bus service through regional transit authorities, or RTAs,” Walz said, identifying one area that would be of benefit statewide. “They are desperately underfunded, so if we think we’re in bad shape, talk to those in parts of the state with RTAs and it’s an even more difficult conversation.”

Urban designer Dennis Carlone noted that in his travels in the Berkshires he finds many of the bridges in the area to be dangerously old and poorly maintained, despite current funding meant to avoid that problem, and that suggests that funding bridge road and bridge repair from a statewide transportation fund could bring on more support. “They would all join in that if there was a way to share the wealth,” he said during Wednesday’s public comment period.

The ideas are sure to come up again Wednesday as MBTA officials hold a meeting at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square. Recent meetings in other communities have reportedly drawn upward of 400 and 500 people, resulting in worries that attendance will spill over from whatever chamber the meeting is held in.