Local Road Funding, Future MBTA Oversight Panel Tackled In New Senate Bill

BOSTON (State House News Service) — The Senate is preparing standalone legislation that would direct $300 million toward municipal road and bridge repairs and would create a new panel to oversee the MBTA when the Fiscal and Management Control Board expires at the end of the month.

Under a bill (S 2739) the Senate Ways and Means Committee is polling Monday, the five-member FMCB would be succeeded by a seven-member MBTA Board of Directors, and cities and towns would receive a total of $300 million in so-called Chapter 90 funding for local road work.

The new board of directors envisioned in the Senate's legislation -- which differs from what the House approved more than three months ago -- would be responsible for choosing the T's general manager, who under the current framework is chosen by the secretary of transportation, according to a summary of the bill.

Five of the seven members would be appointed by the governor to four-year terms. The MBTA Advisory Board, an outside group serving the interests of cities and towns where the T runs service, would choose a sixth member for a four-year term and the secretary of transportation, who currently attends almost all FMCB meetings but is not a voting member, would serve as the seventh MBTA director in an ex-officio capacity.

Five votes would be needed to overcome opposition from the secretary, while four votes would be a sufficient majority for the board to advance policy if the secretary is in agreement.

Each member except for the secretary would be paid an annual stipend of $12,000, twice as much as the maximum stipend FMCB members can be paid under current law. All directors would need to disclose any financial interest they have in topics under their purview to the state Ethics Commission and to abstain from relevant votes.

The bill would require the board to meet at least once a month and at least 20 times per year, less frequently than the three-times-per-month mandate the FMCB faces. Advocates and an independent safety panel have pointed to the current meeting requirement as too stringent, warning that it distracts T employees and leadership from other key tasks.

The Senate's proposed approach diverges from that of the House, foreshadowing a potential need for the branches to negotiate privately over final legislation before either time-sensitive section can become law.

In March, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted formal lawmaking sessions and consumed Beacon Hill's attention, the House included language in a landmark transportation tax billextendingthe FMCB beyond its June 30 sunset and expanding it to seven seats.

The City of Boston would appoint one of the new members of the board in the House's plan, while another seat would be reserved for a representative of another municipality in the T's coverage area.

One day later, the House also approved increasing the annual Chapter 90 allocation from its traditional level of $200 million to $300 million, but it did so as part of an expansive $18 billiontransportation borrowing bill originally filed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Municipal leaders have long requested an increase in the road and bridge maintenance funding.

The bill up for consideration in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday, which has a poll deadline of 3:30 p.m., does not include any of the proposed tax and fee hikes that House leaders estimated would generate more than half a billion dollars in revenue per year, nor does it approve any bonds beyond the Chapter 90 program.

Senate President Karen Spilka said in late April that she hopes to pass the $18 billion borrowing bill before the end of formal lawmaking sessions, but asked about the tax package, she replied, "I'm not certain that now is the time to be talking about taxes."

Baker convened the existing FMCB in 2015 after a disastrous winter exposed deep flaws with the operation of the public transit system. He extended it by another two years in 2018, but the panel will expire after June 30 and cannot be extended again without additional legislation.

In his fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, Baker called for creating a new seven-member board to oversee the MBTA and the Department of Transportation. He also suggested including the secretary of transportation as a member and another member chosen by Advisory Board-represented communities that pay into the system.

By Chris Lisinski, State House News Service

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(Photo: Mario Jarjour/WBZ NewsRadio)

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