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MBTA joins other transit systems to seek more federal aid to replace lost fares

MBTA general manager Steve Poftak in June.
MBTA general manager Steve Poftak in June.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager on Tuesday urged Congress to boost funding for public transit agencies, whose revenue and ridership have plummeted during the pandemic.

A day after MBTA officials outlined possible service cuts for next year, Steve Poftak joined transit executives from across the country in calling for more federal assistance.

“We’re faced with making these tough decisions,” Poftak said at an online news conference hosted by the American Public Transportation Association. “What we need is a federal government that will help us — that will help us sustain our service, that will help us rebuild our communities, that will help us get people where we need to go.”

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The MBTA projects a budget shortfall of $300 million to $600 million next year, mainly due to dwindling fare collections as ridership remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Money authorized in the CARES Act, which Congress passed in the spring, has helped smooth over the budget issues during the ongoing fiscal year, but the T expects that funding to end by next summer.

While MBTA officials have said an infusion of federal funding would help, they haven’t lobbied as aggressively as their counterparts in other cities. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, has been sounding the alarm for months about the need for financial aid from Washington.

That is probably because transit systems in other parts of the country are facing a more immediate financial crunch, with the threat looming of major cuts in coming months.

“The impact to individual agencies is . . . variable. Some can extend a couple more months; others will extend early into next year," said Paul Skoutelas, president of the transportation association. "Our friends in New York, quite frankly, are facing a very dire situation where they’re probably out of money in a couple of months.”

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The MBTA has more time to plan because it has other sources of revenue to cushion its losses for now, such as a guaranteed funding mechanism tied to the state sales tax that covers nearly half of its operating budget. But that will carry the T only so far before it’s forced to reckon with the massive shortfalls in fare revenue, which usually covers about a third of the budget.

The T has begun exploring possible cuts to offset the losses, saying it will focus on preserving services and routes with high rates of use by low-income people, where ridership has been higher, while cutting service with fewer rides in communities that are less dependent on public transit.

But additional federal funding may be unlikely; the propects are unclear. The House passed the $3 trillion-plus HEROES Act several months ago, including nearly $16 billion for transit agencies. Senate Republicans, however, have balked at the size of that relief package, and the chambers appear deadlocked ahead of the election.

Even the HEROES Act would not be enough, Skoutelas said: His organization is calling for a $32 billion infusion.