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Fast fix to MBTA woes is unlikely

Lawmakers weigh long-term ideas

Commuters waited for trains at North Station in Boston Tuesday evening.Sean Proctor/Globe Staff

With the MBTA frozen in the winter of its discontent, waylaid by weather and aging infrastructure, many lawmakers on Beacon Hill bemoaned the agency’s service failures, and top officials have defended the Legislature’s efforts to fund the agency over the years.

But what legislators are going to do about the T’s woes is uncertain.

On Tuesday, members of both parties and outside analysts urged action, offering familiar ideas ranging from giving the troubled transportation organization more money to more robust oversight.

A number of lawmakers said they supported a deliberative process that prioritizes getting any new Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority reforms right, rather just getting something done right now.


And there were strong indications that any legislative move to fix the agency, if there is one, would come slowly, as members seek to address a problem decades in the making.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who hold outsized influence over the movement and passage of all bills, did not promise any legislative action on a T fix speaking to reporters Tuesday evening, instead saying they looked forward to learning more and continuing discussions with their colleagues and Governor Charlie Baker.

DeLeo said the powerful trio has spoken about the idea of a commission to examine problems at the T, but nothing has been finalized. He said T oversight hearings in the Legislature were on the table but did not know whether they would be necessary.

The speaker said the leaders will work together to try to prevent the T’s struggles this winter from happening again.

“That is our ultimate goal here. The question is how do we get there?” DeLeo said.

Some outside analysts have said the T’s winter woes are related, in part, to long-term underfunding by Beacon Hill. But DeLeo has strongly defended the Legislature’s actions, pointing in a recent TV interview to efforts providing “extensive additional . . . money to the T.” And both DeLeo and Baker have been forthright about their discomfort raising taxes for funding transportation or other priorities going forward — and that has essentially set the terms of discussion for what the Legislature might do.


Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, said if it were up to him, the Legislature would seek “greater funding sources” for the T, but he acknowledged that any MBTA fix would probably happen within the no-new-taxes paradigm.

He also noted the Legislature had already made some long-term efforts to help the T, pointing to funding for new cars on the Orange and Red lines set to go into service in a few years.

Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and a top DeLeo lieutenant, said his constituents have expressed deep concern about the agency’s reliability and its ability to live up to the limited promises it has made in these snowy times.

“We have to do something, obviously,” he said, but added that acting instantly, without a thorough, deep review and understanding of the T’s failures, “it’s just shooting in the dark.”

Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester, the Senate Republican leader, ticked through several ideas. Among them: considering a “fiscal control board” to oversee the agency’s finances, rethinking the state’s antiprivatization law (which critics say has increased T costs), and eyeing more cost-effective health insurance for T employees.

Senator John F. Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, spent some of his Tuesday listening to frustrated constituents at Red Line stations in his district with no functioning rail service.


He said there is a growing sense on Beacon Hill that reforms at the MBTA are necessary, but the specifics are still amorphous and he expressed support for hashing them out over a longer stretch of time.

Keenan said the first priority has to be getting full T service back as soon as possible.

But, he said, “I don’t think the Legislature, in terms of developing long-term proposals, should act too quickly. I just think we’ve got to get it right. When you react instantly to a situation such as this, you don’t always get it right.”

Outside analysts have floated ideas, too.

James Aloisi, a former Patrick administration transportation chief and self-described “progressive Democrat,” said the T needed both streamlining — particularly in maintenance — and an infusion of money.

A significant portion of what the agency spends this fiscal year, which runs through June, will go to debt service, and Aloisi proposed the state taking over a substantial amount of the T’s debt, as a way to free up some cash for the agency without raising taxes, fees, or fares.

That, along with an audit of its maintenance spending, he argued, might give the T some breathing room to get its infrastructure in better order.

A debt shift is among the ideas for fixing the MBTA floated by the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, which has proposed many other reforms.


But some Beacon Hill insiders expressed concern about any debt shift, worrying about potential ripple effects.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Rosenberg, the Senate president, took a long view. “People don’t want to pay higher fares, people don’t want to pay higher taxes. People want more trains to run more frequently, faster, and more reliably,” he said. “That is an equation which any scientist will tell you adds up to a big problem.”

David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.