Weeks after lawmakers first voted to set aside $50 million for the MBTA, a searing report into the T’s safety practices surfaced and appeared to confirm what many legislators and critics have argued: The T needs more money.
Then, less than 72 hours later, legislative leaders reached another agreement — that the earmark would now include less money.
The seemingly incongruous decision to instead devote $32 million to the T as part of a compromise about how to spend a $1 billion surplus caught some transit advocates off guard Thursday and left Governor Charlie Baker, who first asked for it, promising to make another request in January.
But the Legislature’s move also underscored the complicated debate that’s engulfed the state’s public transportation, in which many say the state must find more cash for the T’s coffers but there’s no widespread agreement on the best approach.
“I was surprised to see the reduction,” said C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association, which has pressed policy makers to commit more money toward public transit. “When the governor announced the $50 million infusion, all of us who have been paying attention knew it was a drop in the bucket. The remedy is in the billions, and it’s reliable long-term funding that’s needed.
“But why the Legislature decided to make that short-term trade-off, I’m not sure,” she added. “I’m sure that doesn’t feel good for many of their constituents.”
The one-time infusion — which, with the rest of the $541 million spending bill, is now on Baker’s desk — is written for a specific purpose: to seed hires and contracts to “accelerate capital projects” and add staff for inspections and maintenance, as well as bus operators for when service is disrupted.
Lawmakers also tucked in a requirement that the T, which has a $2.1 billion operating budget, produce reports in January and June detailing the numbers of employees and contractors it has brought on with the extra $32 million.
It was, in fact, questions over how the money would be spent that House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo pointed to in explaining the decrease from $50 million, which the House and Senate had included in earlier versions of the bill. The Winthrop Democrat, who has promised to pursue a broader tax bill to fund transportation this session, suggested Wednesday that Baker has been inconsistent in describing the funding purpose.
“I don’t know how they got to the $32 [million], but I do know there has been some confusion about what this money is for,” said James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “This was never intended to fix the problem. It was intended as a stopgap amount of money to get us through the moment.”
Baker refutes his administration has muddled the funds’ purpose. On Monday, he said it would allow the MBTA to improve safety oversight, without getting in the way of capital projects — the type of work a panel of T-hired experts criticized the agency for emphasizing at the expense of daily operations.
“It’s right in the press release,” Baker said of the explanation for the initial $50 million request in June. But even the Republican, who has regularly avoided picking public fights with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, put an optimistic spin on the decreased funding.
“At some point along the way here, I was worried that the Legislature was not going to be able to fund any of this,” Baker said Thursday. “I must say, I’m glad that they funded $32 million of it.”
For others, not so much.
“You have half a billion dollars to allocate. Why not make a down payment now, and clearly send a message, especially in the week where this damning [safety] report came out, that they take this seriously?” said Brian Kane, who served as the T’s director of operations analysis and is now deputy director at the MBTA Advisory Board, an oversight panel whose membership includes the communities served by the T.
“They had a great opportunity,” he said of lawmakers, “and they chose to do the minimum.”
Looming ahead is the likelihood of a broader debate about how to funnel more money into public transportation statewide. DeLeo, who originally said the House would debate a revenue bill in the fall before pushing it into 2020, has said there’s a need for an additional “dedicated long-term revenue stream” for the T, and legislators have tossed around ideas ranging from a gas tax increase to tolling.
Advocates pressing for the same long-term funding also downplayed the supplemental funding’s impact, with several describing it as “rounding error” amid the system’s greater needs.
“We think that’s the bigger opportunity here,” Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, said of a revenue bill. “The focus on $32 million vs. $50 million is sort of losing the forest through the trees.”