Massachusetts lawmakers advanced a plan Thursday to dip into a little-known state account to help balance the MBTA budget, avoiding even steeper fare hikes than those approved by the T board last month.
While most of the $51 million in that fund will go to the T, House members of the influential Joint Transportation Committee want to send $5 million to smaller bus agencies serving other regions of the state.
“The source of the money is something that everyone in Massachusetts has contributed to,’’ said Representative William M. Straus, House Transportation Committee chairman, expressing reservations about people from all corners “of Massachusetts bailing out the MBTA.’’
The committee voted 12 to 0 for the plan, which still needs to clear other legislative hurdles.
At the same time, legislators called for part of the T’s deficit to be covered by the Massachusetts Port Authority, proposing that Massport take over commuter ferry service while paying the T roughly $20 million or more to purchase boats, piers, and parking lots.
Transit advocates have called repeatedly for Massport to aid the cash-strapped Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. But Massport and the administration of Governor Deval Patrick have expressed hesitancy about how much Massport can do without draining Logan Airport surpluses or running afoul of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Straus said those legal issues have been overstated. He called ferry service consistent with Massport’s mission as developer and operator of the Port of Boston as well as the airport and better suited to Massport than the MBTA.
“Where Massport really is a major real estate holder on all sides of the harbor engaged in activities not just at Logan but on the port and shipping areas, that by definition is a perfect match for their mission and their expertise,’’ said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.
With the T facing a $160 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts in July, transit officials had proposed steep service cuts and fare increases of 40 percent or more. After those plans were sharply rebuked at packed hearings, the MBTA board voted to avoid most cuts and raise prices more modestly, including a 30-cent bump on CharlieCard subway fares and a 25-cent increase on bus fares.
That closed only about two-thirds of the budget gap, with the Patrick administration calling for one-time fixes that include the $51 million transfer from motor vehicle inspection fees, a move requiring legislative approval by June 30.
Senate members on the committee voted to reserve their rights, meaning that they did not vote yes or no but instead signaled they may weigh in later and could offer a plan of their own after the bill advances through the House. The bill now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee for financial review before proceeding to the House floor, then the Senate.
An administration spokeswoman had a mixed reaction. “We appreciate the committee recognizing the urgency of getting legislation in place to help solve the T’s deficit problem for next year,’’ said Cyndi Roy, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. But “we have some concerns about this new Massport piece,’’ citing questions about whether possible FAA legal issues could be resolved in time for the start of the T’s budget year.
With the T facing fare increases, several outside groups have called for Massport to provide greater support. But while Massport helped purchase Silver Line buses that serve the airport, it does not subsidize daily operations of the Silver Line or the Blue Line subway carrying thousands of travelers to Logan.
Meanwhile, the ferry service run by the T has operated at an annual loss of about $4 million, a gap the MBTA board tried to resolve last month by raising commuter boat fares to $8 to $16, up from $6 to $12.
Paul Regan - executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns served by the T and which has called for Massport to take over the ferries - hailed the House committee vote.
“It makes a lot more sense to have the authority that runs the port run the ferries,’’ he said, “not to have this one little sideline for the public transit system.’’Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.