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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Monday, January 21, 2008

T is for Truth

Deval Patrick unveils his fiscal 2009 budget this week, complete with proposals to end homelessness, support the environment and infuse casino gambling revenues into the debate.

What will be missing from what minimal media attention there might be is a look at one of the largest consumers of state sales tax revenues -- the MBTA -- and how that operation is meeting its public obligations.

Lost amid the hype of CharlieCards and the constant image of Smilin' Dan Grabauskas asking to hear from riders is a deep look at what kind of job the T is doing with our money. It's been one year since fares were raised and I continue to search in vain in the Globe and Herald for signs of what that has meant in terms of revenues and ridership.

If you dig deep enough though, it's there. But the fiscal management of the MBTA should be as much a part of the discussion the state transportation future as the Turnpike Authority and the Big Dig and not hidden away in green eyeshade documents to be used as sleep potions.

Based on audited statements for fiscal 2007, the T's revenues rose to $386,488,000 for the fiscal year ended June 30. That's up from $333,096,000 from the previous year -- and reflects only half a year of the new higher fare collections.

For the same period, the T's expenses rose modestly to $538,382,000 compared to $534,682,000 in FY 2006.

Yet despite the infusion of more than $50 million in revenue and just a $4 million jump in expenses, the MBTA's operating loss rose to $881,265,000 compared to $879,572,000 the previous year.

The gap was covered by the dedicated 1 percent revenue stream from the Massachusetts sales tax -- meaning the T received $733,963,000 in fiscal 2007, up from $712,586,000 a year earlier.

Of course, if you check out the MBTA's "Historical Statement of Revenues and Expenses" (SORE) you get a different picture. In this view, operating revenues were $431,621,571; operating expenses came in at $980,475,100 and the deficit at $4,700,400. (Apples to oranges I know, but it's their data).

No mention in either of these documents about ridership so we have no way of knowing exactly how much of an impact higher bus, subway and commuter rail fares had on the willingness of people to abandon their cars (along with higher gasoline prices) to take public transportation.

Smilin' Dan confesses to BostonNow that ridership is down and the T is structurally broke. In all likelihood, the interview was granted with the smallest possible audience in mind -- although neither the Globe nor the Herald seem overly interested in the transit system's operation anyway.

The ever-helpful general manager passes the buck, literally:
Instead, closing the gap will be up to Gov. Deval Patrick and the state Legislature, Grabauskas said. Patrick has proposed casino revenue and a cost-saving state transportation merger. All Grabauskas can do is work on the one factor that may be within his control - ridership, he said.
How's he doing? Renovation on three Green Line station is progressing at the pace of well, the Green Line at rush hour. Kenmore Square, due for a total makeover in 2004, is looking at late 2008. What that means for the 2009 completion dates for Copley and Arlington is anyone's guess. (Anyone with roses or stinkweeds from other lines, please feel free to share).

The T is also alleged trying to do something about the problem that was supposed to be solved by the fancy new toll collection system -- fare jumping. The current system, however, remains a nightmare for collecting outbound Green Line fares. All the efforts right now result in even slower rides along the surface Green Line routes -- while the T scrimps and saves by insisting traffic light synchronization isn't a proven solution.

So here's another challenge for Massachusetts budget makers as they prepare to look over an increasingly bleak fiscal 2009 spending plan. Are the state's taxpayers -- who after all are shelling out nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars to operate the system according to the T's own auditors -- getting a proper bang for their buck?

And if not, why is Smilin' Dan still employed?

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Blogger Train Rider said...

I am still in awe that Danny G. left for a personal vacation before officially confirming if the Amtrak strike was going to be called off.

The MBTA needs to be overhauled. The state has spent a lot of time and money "overhauling" both Massport and the Pike. But the T has always been the biggest waster of state revenues and resources. It is really one "hack-a-licious" entity.

January 21, 2008 11:57 AM  
Blogger Aaron Weber said...

I've heard rumors that the MBTA suffers from rampant absenteeism, although I have no idea if it's true or not. I'd love to see the Globe do an investigation into the T's budget, staff, and so forth...

I love the T because I love public transit... I just wish it were more efficient.

January 21, 2008 9:01 PM  
Blogger mibsphil said...

The T is horrible. It's a disgrace. Try riding the Red Line into downtown Boston every day and you'll see what I mean. The governor and the state legislature need to get serious about the T. Sometimes I shudder to think about the impression tourists must get when they encounter our filthy, unreliable, broken down transit system. The taxpayers are getting ripped off while T management luxuriates in jobs they can't get fired from. Management needs to be cleaned out and replaced with people who actually have expertise and experience in transportation systems. I've been riding the T for about 30 years, and it's gotten progressively worse over that time.

January 22, 2008 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Ashley--I'm a TV reporter from Emerson College. I may not be the Globe, but I have reviewed the audited report and Governor Patrick's MBTA allocations from last year's budget. I plan to ask him about the issue if we have access after his State of the Commonwealth speech.

I have questions in mind, but you can send ideas about what you'd want to know from him to ashley.porter@eivnews.com.


January 22, 2008 2:31 PM  

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