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MBTA pension system operates like a Ponzi scheme

The MBTA pension system needs an overhaul.DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

Even as MBTA riders face a proposed 6.3 percent fare hike, totalling an estimated $32 million, the transit system is already committed to sinking $103 million into the black hole that is the T’s pension system. That can’t go on forever, and on Monday T officials are expected to once again take a look at the budget implications of the increasingly problematic program.

The privately run pension fund — a source of controversy for years because of its lack of transparency and its overly generous benefits — clearly cries out for reform. T officials have told the Globe that they have been attempting to renegotiate the pension agreement, beginning with the T’s largest union, Carmen’s Union Local 589. Surely union bosses are aware by now that the fund is on an unsustainable path.


The numbers alone are sobering. In 2017 the fund paid out $209 million in benefits to 6,800 retirees or their beneficiaries, while only 5,300 current employees paid into the fund. Over the previous decade, $1.7 billion was paid out, and $740 million paid into the fund.

In the private sector, that would be considered a Ponzi scheme.

RELATED: MBTA pension fund took $150m hit in 2018

By the end of 2019, the estimated unfunded liability — the difference between what retirees are owed and what is actually in the fund — is expected to reach $1.5 billion. Meanwhile the fund itself, its investment strategy shrouded in mystery, has been underperforming that of the state’s $70 billion Pension Reserves Investment Management Board, which covers pensions for nearly all other state workers and public school teachers.

That leaves riders and taxpayers to cover the gap. In 2007 the shortfall the T was forced to cover was $30 million. Today it stands at $103 million, and it could hit $137 million within three years, T officials warn.


Thus far, attempts at reform have merely tinkered at the edges. Where once T employees could retire after 23 years of service — and many still can, having been grandfathered in — those hired after 2012 can retire at age 55, after 25 years of service. However, other state employees and teachers aren’t eligible until age 60 (with 25 years on the job). The teachers get less than 40 percent of their ending salaries; T workers retire at some 60 percent of their ending salary.

All of that, plus the T’s growing interest on construction-related debt, makes up what the MBTA calls its “structural deficit.” But it’s only “structural” because no one has had the guts to tackle it head on — well, perhaps until now.

The Carmen’s Union — whose president sits on the T pension fund board — has pretty much had things all its way, even as the pension fund rests on ever shakier ground and its members and retirees are put at ever greater risk. But the taxpayer-funded gravy train can’t roll on forever. In 2017 the Legislature approved a bill proposed by Governor Charlie Baker that allowed — but did not mandate — the merger of the T pension system into the larger state system ably managed by the PRIM Board. That hasn’t happened — and it must.

The T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board is expecting another update on the ongoing bad pension news Monday. Saving the T pension system, saving benefits to future retirees, and saving hard-pressed riders from fare increases will depend on T officials and union officials getting serious about change.