MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said on Wednesday the agency plans to speed up the implementation of technology meant to prevent crashes on the Green Line, 13 years after federal officials first recommended the T install it and six months after a trolley crash sent 27 people to the hospital.
By transferring around $45 million from its operating budget, for day-to-day needs, to its capital budget, for longer-term projects, Poftak told MBTA board members Wednesday, the tech could be implemented a year early, in 2023.
“The Green Line train protection project will prevent those kinds of accidents from happening,” he said of the July 30 crash, in which a speeding trolley crashed into the one in front of it. “Accelerating it by a year is real progress.”
The driver of the trolley involved in the crash had a record of speeding, according to court records obtained by the Globe, and has been charged with negligence. Earlier this month, the Suffolk district attorney’s office announced it was investigating the MBTA for potential criminal liability in the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended the MBTA install a train collision prevention system called positive train control in 2009, following a Green Line train collision that year that injured 49 people and another one in 2008 that killed a train operator. The system applies brakes as one train approaches another, even if an operator doesn’t apply them.
In 2019, 10 years after the NTSB’s recommendation, the MBTA awarded a contract for an alternative, less expensive safety system that it says will accomplish the same benefits. The T said previously the tech would be fully implemented in December 2024.
The $45 million for the Green Line tech is part of a larger transfer of around $500 million from the MBTA’s operating budget to its capital budget. Among the goals of the transfer, Poftak said the T plans to spend $109 million on bus facilities in Quincy, Arborway, and North Cambridge, and other bus projects, and $145 million on matching new federal infrastructure funds.
The MBTA ended up with a $500 million surplus after receiving around $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds to keep its system running during the pandemic.
Transferring the funds from the operations side to the capital investment side relieves some of the shortfall in the MBTA’s capital budget in the coming years, Poftak said. But without new sources of funding, the MBTA will face severe budget shortfalls on both its operations side and its capital investment side.
“We do face a shortfall in funding, particularly acute toward the middle part of the decade on the capital side,” Poftak told board members. “This $500 million is an initial step toward addressing this shortfall.”
While transit advocates support investments in bus facilities and safety technology, they are concerned about future fare increases or service cuts if the MBTA can’t fill its operating budget hole. The MBTA estimated it will face a gap of $236 million in its operating budget by the fiscal year that begins in summer 2023, according to its median fare revenue projection in December.
“It masks a larger problem,” said Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters. “The T doesn’t need one-time transfers and creative finance tricks, it needs stable capital funding and stable operating funding.”
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the one-time transfer is necessary for managing immediate capital investment needs.
“The MBTA has always managed projected operating deficits and will continue to take actions to do so,” Pesaturo said via e-mail. “But given the magnitude of projected deficits, these future costs will require a long-term fix, rather than relying on one time money to put off for a year what must be addressed for the long-term stability of the T.”
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