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MBTA plans next year’s budget despite uncertainty

The MBTA will forge ahead with crafting next year’s budget while uncertainty looms over whether the T will receive the millions of dollars they seek from state legislators considering Governor Deval Patrick’s transportation funding plan.

Patrick’s proposal earmarks more than $3 billion for the MBTA over 10 years, including $166 million that would cover T operating expenses in fiscal 2014, but it will be months ­before legislators decide whether they will raise taxes to fund Patrick’s plan, in whole or in part.

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At the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s finance and audit committee meeting Tuesday, the department’s board of directors said the T cannot wait that long to finalize its budget. Officials are ­required to submit a spending plan that features major cuts to accommodate a $140 million deficit by April 15, board members said.

“We can’t assume the Legislature is going to come through or that they’re on the same timeline that we’re on,” said John R. ­Jenkins, chairman of the board. “And if we’ve got to make some tough choices, we’ve got to make them.”

Last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had a $2.16 million surplus, and a surplus is expected for fiscal 2013. Because of higher-than-expected ridership and new digital ads that debuted in Harvard Square and Park Street Stations, officials estimate a $12.9 million surplus in an oper;ating budget of more than $1 billion.

Those surpluses go toward funding large-scale improvements, but not toward paying off debt and do not offset the following year’s financial needs.

The preliminary draft for the 2014 budget projects a $140 million shortfall in the T’s operating budget, largely ­because of increased expenses for maintenance, fuel, and needed technology upgrades.

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Establishing a budget that includes cuts in expenses, which could include cuts to service, would provide a clear picture of the consequences if the region’s systems of trains, buses, and boats does not receive an infusion of cash.

Officials said they are ­already tightening their belts. Beverly A. Scott, general manager of the T, said that 155 ­requested positions remain unfilled. Part of that decision, she said, was an effort to be cautious as they await the T’s financial picture.

At Tuesday’s meeting, MBTA and MassDOT officials also ­allayed concerns that they would be hit hard by potential massive federal spending cuts set to take effect March 1. Funding for road and bridge ­repairs would not be affected because the Federal Highway Administration receives its revenue from gas taxes that go into a trust fund, then transfers the money directly to states.

Jonathan R. Davis, the T’s chief financial officer, explained that some of the innovation and technology projects the system is hoping to pursue are dependent on federal grants, grants that may dry up as a result of the spending cuts. Some of the less-urgent efforts to update the T’s internal technology, such as electronic systems for ordering materials and submitting bids, could get waylaid.

“Some of these IT projects would probably not rise to the critical nature of needing to get done right away,” Davis said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.
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