Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Another source of cash was revealed Monday that might help ease the mass transit crisis facing Cambridge and the state: up to $25 million in snow and ice removal funds that have gone unused in an unusually mild winter.

Like requests to help seniors, students and the disabled pay less when threatened fare hikes and service cuts to buses, T and commuter rail service kick in — a result of the $161 million deficit facing the MBTA and even bigger, longer-term deficits seen in coming years — the snow and ice budget was added to a letter the council intends to present to MBTA officials at a 6 p.m. Wednesday meeting at City Hall.

The state budgeted $50 million for the winter and has used only $10 million, said councillor Tim Toomey, who is also a state representative. Between $10 million and $25 million could go to filling the MBTA budget shortfall.

“I feel a little more optimistic than I did that we will come up with a short-term solution,” Toomey said. In terms of a long-term solution, “legislators are working very hard. This is probably our most talked-about topic … the public outcry has resonated.”

Councillor Ken Reeves disliked the portion of the letter in which an immediate 25 percent fare hike was considered acceptable, raising some $80 million, and then small fare hikes every couple of years afterward until fares paid for 40 percent of the operation of the MBTA — at or less than what transit agencies in other cities rely on. “I don’t think the people I represent like that at all … those that gave [the MBTA] the budget constraints should be the ones in hot water,” he said, wondering why the system couldn’t incorporate a more “rational” fare scale in which passengers paid more if they traveled a longer distance.

But he bowed to the will of the council, which also extended hours for students‘ discount passes and asked for a discount program for seniors and the disabled if fares rose. The letter also says this is the wrong time and way to tackle service cuts, which in some scenarios could eliminate the only bus that goes by the Cambridge Main Library and essentially isolate the Huron Village neighborhood. Cuts to E trains on the green line could dramatically limit residents’ abilities to get to their homes or businesses in East Cambridge and NorthPoint.

Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development, suggested the city would encourage compromise and long-term help by acknowledging the need for fare hikes.