Massachusetts transportation officials Thursday backed a $1.8 billion budget for the MBTA that calls for a substantial increase in state funding to bridge a yawning deficit and avoid steep fare hikes.
The debt-ridden agency faces a $118 million shortfall for the next fiscal year, and MBTA leaders have warned that an infusion of state aid is needed to avoid sharp budget cuts and hefty fare increases.
“We cannot afford what we have,” Beverly Scott, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said at a Department of Transportation finance committee meeting Thursday, where members voted to recommend the spending plan. “It is a structural problem. The time is now. It must have a structural fix.”
Governor Deval Patrick has proposed $13 billion in new funds over the next decade for public transportation through tax increases, and board members expressed optimism lawmakers would support the idea.
The T’s blueprint calls for $118 million in additional state funding, as well as $21 million in spending cuts, to balance the budget. The plan now goes to the state transportation agency’s full board of directors.
But Jonathan Davis, the MBTA’s deputy general manager, said that without new state funding, officials would be forced to increase fares by an average of 19 percent, raising an estimated $39 million. Without new state aid, he said, “we will take steps immediately after July 1 to close that gap.”
Increases would go into effect around December under the plan, with subway fares rising from $2 to $2.45, and bus fares going from $1.50 to $1.85.
However, the cost of The Ride, a curb-to-curb service for passengers with disabilities, would remain unchanged at $4.
Last year, the MBTA raised fares 23 percent to balance its budget, after battling financial difficulties for years. Of the $1.8 billion budget, $443 million would go to debt payments.
Officials projected that the new proposed increase would cause ridership to drop 4.6 percent, offsetting some savings.
If lawmakers do not provide the needed state aid, the MBTA said, it would also cut $77 million in spending by deferring maintenance and planned improvements, and freezing about 30 administrative positions. Some of the least popular bus routes would be dropped.
Board members urged lawmakers to approve Patrick’s proposal to bolster the agency.
“We cannot balance the budget under these circumstances,” said Ferdinand Alvaro. “It’s time for the Legislature to step up. Period. The end.”
Advocates for seniors and the disabled packed the meeting in opposition to potential fare increases for The Ride, saying last year’s hike had forced passengers to go forgo the service.
“We warned you the human cost of your policy decision would be significant,” said Ann Stewart, president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. “We’re here today to tell you we were right.”
Many advocates held signs that read “Roll Back The Ride Fares.” They said the higher costs had forced the elderly and disabled to miss medical appointments, church services, and gatherings with friends.
In sharply worded comments that drew applause, audience member John Marshall accused the board of trying to balance the budget “on the backs of the elderly and disabled.”
“It’s part of your plan to reduce ridership,” he said. “It’s transparent.”
Board member Alan Macdonald disagreed.
“There’s no one on this board who wants to make it tougher for people to use public transportation,” he said.