MBTA officials will hold off until at least March before resorting to fare increases or service cuts, waiting for lawmakers as they debate potential tax hikes to address the state’s long-simmering crisis in transportation funding, the T’s new general manager said Wednesday.
MBTA general manager Beverly Scott, in her first extended interview since starting last week, said she hopes lawmakers in the next two months will come up with new funding for the T, relieving pressure on the agency to once more raise fares or cut service to balance its budget.
“These first 60 days are going to be very, very critical,” Scott said. “The last thing I want to have to do is start off the year scaring people.”
Also Wednesday, T officials put the size of the MBTA deficit at $132 million for the budget year that starts July 1.
Scott’s interview came as the T announced another monthly ridership increase, with statistics showing an average of 1.33 million riders each weekday in November — nearly 2 percent higher than in the same month a year earlier, and the third month out of five that ridership has grown since the T raised prices an average of 23 percent last summer. State planners had projected that ridership would fall after the fare hike.
While higher fares and ridership have meant more money for the T, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the state’s overall transportation funding shortfall.
Past estimates suggest the state has a roughly $1 billion annual gap between how much it raises to fund transportation and what it should actually spend on highway and transit operations and upkeep, a problem partly masked through heavy borrowing.
When lawmakers approved emergency funding for the T and the state’s smaller bus agencies in June — avoiding steeper fare increases as well as service cuts — they acknowledged it was just a temporary fix. They called on Governor Deval Patrick to propose a larger solution by January.
Patrick is expected by Jan. 7 to submit a plan that will be less a blueprint for how to solve the crisis than a tally of what it would cost to shore up the transportation system and pay for expansion. It would probably show how much money could be raised by increased or new taxes, tolls, and fees. Specific recommendations are expected to follow in Patrick’s budget plan for the Legislature.
Representative William M. Straus, co-chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, said lawmakers will debate how much the state should invest in transportation, and how to raise that money with an eye on the MBTA’s calendar. State law calls for the T to pass a balanced budget for its upcoming July-June fiscal year each April.
“In no sense should people think the T is out of the woods,” Straus said, underscoring that last June’s fix was a temporary solution.
Pressure on the T has been mounting since 2000, when lawmakers ended the longtime practice of writing a check to cover the difference between MBTA expenses and fares.
To help the T balance its budget, the Legislature dedicated part of the state’s sales tax to transit. But they also saddled the T with debt to pay off politically popular transit expansions, including projects that the state was legally required to complete to offset the air-quality impacts of the traffic generated by the Big Dig project.
The T responded by reducing staff and generating more money from advertising, while lawmakers have helped tighten employee pension rules and reined in health care expenses.
But annual costs — fuel, electricity, federally mandated door-to-door service for the disabled, and especially debt payments — have grown much faster than the sales tax, which has lagged through recessions and tax-free online shopping.
Scott, who has led or worked for large transit agencies in several regions, said she believes leaders and the public here understand the issues and want to reinvest in transportation.
She attributed the T’s continued increase in ridership to a recovering economy, relatively high gas prices, and customer service improvements from the T, such as a smartphone application for commuter rail ticketing and next-train countdown signs at subway stations.
Analysts at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy had predicted ridership might hold steady, because fares had not risen since January 2007 and because Greater Boston residents increasingly live or work near transit, with development concentrated around transit stations.
“What people do when they’re faced with an increase is a function in particular of what their alternatives are,” including the ease and price of driving and parking, said Stephanie Pollack, associate director at the center. “If you start raising fares [yearly], you’ll see a much sharper dropoff.”
At South Station on Wednesday, riders interviewed said they absorbed the fare increase as a necessary expense.
“It’s almost like gasoline,” said Paul Toland, a 26-year-old who commutes from Weymouth to downtown, parking in Braintree to take the Red Line. “You’ve got to pay what they tell you.”