State officials will seek to raise Registry of Motor Vehicles fees by 10 percent on July 1 to fill a $53 million gap in the state Department of Transportation’s operating budget next year.
Even with new funding alloted for transportation needs in a law passed last summer, MassDOT must still come up with additional money to pay for one of the stipulations outlined in that law — that the agency stop paying employee salaries on credit and instead start including the pay in the department’s yearly operating budget.
It’s a more fiscally responsible practice in the long run, explained Dana Levenson, MassDOT’s chief financial officer, at the department’s board of directors meeting Wednesday. But in the short run, MassDOT officials must figure out how to find the money for the new yearly expense.
“We are limited in what we have available,” Levenson said. RMV fee increases, he continued, “is the only place we have to go to close the gap.”
The T already plans to raise fares by 5 percent this summer — the maximum increase allowed under the new law — and some argue that the state’s rising transportation costs have been unfairly borne by users of public transportation. Increases in highway tolls would not fill the gap because the money collected from tolls must be used for road maintenance.
And the RMV might be due for fee hikes: Many of the fees incurred most often by customers have not increased since 2008. The price of vehicle inspections has not changed in 15 years, Levenson said.
And if there’s one thing MassDOT officials learned last year, it’s that they shouldn’t expect an increase in the gas tax index this year.
“We’ve heard from the public that they don’t like gas tax increases — loud and clear,” said Alan G. Macdonald, a member of the MassDOT board of directors.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles brings in about $550 million per year. If that figure can grow by 10 percent, MassDOT officials say, they can close the budget gap. Levenson said staff are still assessing their options on how to increase fees, but it probably will not be a 10 percent increase across the board for the dozens of services offered by the RMV. Instead, they are looking to rely heavily on more dramatic fee increases on the biggest revenue generators: vehicle registration, vehicle inspections, certificates of title, and driver’s licenses.
Officials will announce details of the RMV fee increases in March — the same time that the T plans to make public its fare hike proposal.
“It will be done with the idea that [the increases] are going to be fair,” Levenson said. “They’re not going to be egregious in any sense.”
Dominic Blue, a member of the board of directors, said he wondered whether RMV staff could find ways to close the budget with cuts in expenses, rather than increasing costs for customers.
Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said that would not be possible without dramatically affecting RMV service.
“Keeping in mind that wait times are extremely important, the ability to keep those low is dependent on the amount of personnel we have,” Davey said. “It’s very difficult to cut any further.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, MassDOT officials also discussed details of the agency’s capital investment plan, a proposal that was released this month outlining long-term investments for coming years. That proposal, MBTA chief financial officer Jonathan R. Davis acknowledged, underfunds investments in the T’s aging fleet of buses — a shortcoming that was criticized by a slew of transportation activists at a MassDOT community meeting later in the evening. Before the capital plan is approved by the board of directors, Davis is looking to find at least $300 million more to pay for new buses, either through shaving off funds currently dedicated to other T projects, or by seeking federal funds and grants.
Currently, 6 percent of the T’s $6 billion capital spending plan for 2015 to 2019 is dedicated to bus investments. Twenty-seven percent is alloted to the T’s Green Line and 12 percent to the Orange Line. The commuter rail is slated to receive 22 percent of the funds.
Some board members expressed concerns that buses, a vital mode of transportation in urban areas, are getting short shrift.
“It seems like we make a lot more investment in commuter rail, relative to riders, than in other modes,” said board member John R. Jenkins said. “It seems significantly disproportionate.”