Balanced budgets and crumbling garages are a sign of the times at the T
The MBTA is in rare health, disclosing Monday that it finished its most recent fiscal year with balanced books for the first time in a decade.
But the MBTA is also falling apart in some places, the sudden closure of the crumbling Alewife garage over the weekend the most recent example of years of deferred maintenance coming home to roost.
These dueling images of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority emerged Monday, underscoring that the management reforms trumpeted by the Baker administration have not always delivered a more reliable system to frustrated commuters.
A balanced MBTA budget “is maybe good for the state, but for me personally? No,” said Edvania Greeley, a Red Line rider whose commute between Weymouth and the Longwood Medical area sometimes takes two hours. “This train is going to start breaking more often in fall and winter.”
Top officials at the T promise balanced budgets will ultimately lead to service improvements by freeing more money for repairs.
But at a public meeting of the MBTA oversight board Monday, they were excoriated by local elected leaders for the latest failure that left commuters in the lurch — the closure of the system’s largest parking garage for emergency repairs after falling debris hit a car last week. Members of the T’s board also said they were displeased.
“I was not happy to find myself in a position where I knew nothing about this condition,” said MBTA board chairman Joseph Aiello.
He said agency officials should have been more forthright about the scope of problems at Alewife and urged the T to publicize safety concerns in the future. In November a consultant found that the garage was at risk of “imminent failures.”
Meanwhile, transit officials were eager to tout an unusual accomplishment for an agency that has long run in the red: ending the fiscal year without a deficit in its daily operating budget.
The MBTA spent $2.02 billion in the year that ended June 30 and covered those costs without additional assistance from the state Legislature. At the beginning of the year, the T estimated a shortfall of more than $30 million and in previous years posted deficits as high as $119 million.
T officials attributed the improved finances to higher revenue from fare collections, especially from advertising, parking, and real estate deals. Deferred wage increases from new union contracts also helped control costs.
“We have finally gotten to a spot where the T understands where it is earning its revenue and where it’s spending it, and is finally doing it in a fiscally responsible manner,” said MBTA chief administrator Michael Abramo.
But with other speakers lining up to hit the MBTA over its handling of the Alewife garage, general manager Luis Ramirez sought to link the agency’s budget accomplishments with its many repair needs.
In years past, when urgent fixes abruptly surfaced, Ramirez said, the agency was forced to borrow funds that had been dedicated to other deserving projects.
“If there was any semblance of silver lining to this situation, it’s that we’ve had the funding . . . to finance these interim repairs we’ve been making,” Ramirez said. “That, opposed to the past, when we’ve had to use capital funding that would otherwise go to something else that was a priority.”
But it’s not clear whether the MBTA can sustain a balanced budget if it hopes to improve service. For example, the agency this year plans to hire 55 more bus drivers and add service after riders endured a spike in canceled trips last year.
For this year, the T is projecting a $36.5 million shortfall in its $2.06 billion budget.
Governor Charlie Baker has repeatedly said the transportation system does not need more money and should be able to better manage what it already gets.
The T is scheduled to spend $8 billion over the next five years to repair, modernize, and expand the system — a substantial increase over previous cycles.
Former state transportation secretary James Aloisi said administrators have done a good job with what money they have, but the incident at the Alewife garage underscores his view the system needs more cash.
“Kudos for fiscal discipline,” he said in an interview. “Not so high marks for developing and finding a budget adequate to the task.”
The Alewife garage was closed all weekend as work crews completed inspections and shored up parts of the interior where concrete appeared to be deteriorating.
The T was already planning an overhaul of the garage before more problems surfaced last week. Last month, the agency solicited bids from contractors, but the structural problems escalated before the T could hire one, a sequence of events that will ring familiar to commuters who have endured broken-down trains and glitchy power systems that officials have promised are being fixed.
“You all need to do a much better job of communicating with all of us,” state Senator Cindy Friedman of Arlington told T officials at the meeting Monday. “Listen to us, talk to us, and communicate. You’ve known about these issues at Alewife for a very long time.”
On Thursday, the T selected Structural Preservation Systems of Connecticut for the $5.7 million job, which will begin next month and includes repairs to beams, concrete, and drainage systems. The T is also developing a longer-term plan for the garage, which may need to be fully replaced.
For now, the T has asked commuters to not leave their cars in the garage overnight. The agency expects to close the garage again this weekend, for additional inspections.
The T is also set to raise the daily parking fee at the 2,600-space garage to $10, from $7 on Sept. 1. Ramirez said he would consider easing off the fee increase after officials pressed the T Monday not to set the rate so high.
Meanwhile, officials are busy planning a display to the public of a major upcoming upgrade: a mock-up of the new subway cars coming to the Red Line, now parked on Boston’s City Hall Plaza.
At Monday’s governing board meeting, deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville promised that the new subway cars and other infrastructure improvements will one day result in 95 percent of Red and Orange line trains arriving on time.