Metro

MBTA approves $2 billion budget

Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA: 02-18-2017: MBTA commuter rail train from Boston pulls into the station in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. Feb. 18, 2017. Photo/John Blanding, Boston Globe staff story/, Business ( 022617location )
John Blanding/Globe staff
The MBTA’s budget no longer includes cutting weekend commuter rail service entirely.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Thursday approved a nearly $2 billion budget that could privatize four bus garages and avoids — for now — most proposed service cuts to weekend commuter rail service and door-to-door van trips for riders with disabilities.

Those reductions were roundly criticized, and MBTA officials moved quickly to find alternatives. The original proposal would have made the MBTA the nation’s only major commuter rail system to completely shut down on weekends.

Brian Lang, a member of the MBTA’s oversight board, said the $1.98 billion budget was a “reflection of the board listening to the public.”

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“The staff has a responsibility to put forward aggressive proposals, and the public reacted, and we took that into account,” he said. “It’s what we strive to do throughout this: to strike a balance between creating efficiencies and sustainability with the legitimate concerns of the public.”

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The budget, which was approved unanimously, does not include fare hikes. It takes effect in July.

The original budget cuts were intended to tackle a $42 million deficit that some criticized as misleading since the MBTA had access to additional state revenue. But after the proposals prompted an outcry from political leaders and riders, board members decided to bridge the gap with $30 million from those additional funds.

At the same time, board members did not rule out some service cuts in the next fiscal year, and the budget calls for unspecified savings on commuter rail service and The Ride, the program for riders with disabilities.

“It’s a far better budget for riders than the one that was on the table a month ago, but we still have concerns about potential cuts in the 2018 fiscal year,” said Charlie Ticotsky, the policy director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of organizations that lobby for better public transit.

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The board also voted to pursue bids from outside vendors to run four of the MBTA’s nine bus garages as part of a plan to save approximately $8 million in the next fiscal year. At the same time, the board called on MBTA officials to negotiate a new contract with the machinists union to trim costs, a possible alternative to the outsourcing. In addition, the MBTA is challenging one of its largest garages to cut costs, and outsourcing some work from another location.

On Thursday, board members heard from several legislators and riders, many of whom opposed privatization. Outsourcing parts of the MBTA to save money has been a priority for Governor Charlie Baker and MBTA leaders.

“We agree that measures must be taken to rein in costs, but we should not do so at the expense of our dedicated workforce,” said state Representative Sean Garballey, a Democrat from Arlington who serves on the Legislature’s MBTA Caucus.

Some of the pushback seemed to frustrate Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who pointedly mentioned that some of the legislators who testified also appropriate money to regional transit agencies, which already use privatized workforces.

The proposal also drew criticism from officials of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers, who said quality would suffer under private companies.

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“The MBTA board should not hand over the keys to a private corporation who will end up driving the public transit system into a ditch,” the labor group’s president Robert Martinez Jr. said.

The budget included a number of reductions, including:

 $6 million from privatizing many customer service positions in MBTA stations, while moving former customer service agents to bus driving jobs.

 $1 million in savings from The Ride, which could mean the elimination of some trips. Board members backed away from sharper cuts after hearing dozens of people testify against them over the last few months.

 $5 million from the commuter rail, which could include reducing weekend service on low-ridership lines. The original proposal to eliminate all weekend service prompted such outcry that Baker said it was off the table.

The plan also includes potentially increasing revenue by allowing advertisements from alcohol companies, a controversial move opposed by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The oversight board would have to approve a change in policy to allow such ads, which MBTA officials say would not be displayed when children are typically taking the train to and from school.

Though several questions remain about savings in the budget, board members praised agency officials for outlining cost-cutting moves.

“We still face serious challenges, but we can also report significant progress, more than many people thought was even possible,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the MBTA’s acting general manager.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.