BOSTON (State House News Service) - The Massachusetts House took a major step Thursday toward injecting billions of dollars into work on the state's transportation and environmental infrastructure, sending to the Senate a rewritten borrowing bill that includes hundreds of millions of dollars to fix glaring safety issues at the MBTA and explore a rail expansion in western Massachusetts.
The House voted 155-0 in favor of a nearly $11 billion infrastructure bond bill (H 4897) after approving a mega-amendment that tacked on about $560 million in additional spending, mostly consisting of local earmarks, as well as new reporting requirements for the beleaguered MBTA amid a blistering federal investigation.
Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus called the legislation "this session's signature transportation bond bill."
After an eleventh-hour gubernatorial veto doomed last session's legislative push to require offering low-income fares across the MBTA, the House decided against making another pass at the issue.
East Boston Rep. Adrian Madaro filed an amendment that would have ordered the T to launch a free or discounted transit fare program for all qualifying low-income riders, roughly similar to language both the House and Senate approved in the dying hours of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session, but representatives quietly disposed of the proposal by omitting it from the single consolidated amendment.
Instead, the bill calls for creation of a "mobility pricing commission" that would study congestion pricing -- a practice in which roadway tolls rise or fall depending on traffic conditions to incentivize travel at off-peak times -- and public transit pricing. That group's work would investigate "the feasibility of means-tested fares" as well as ridership forecasts and emissions impacts, and file a report by July 1, 2023.
"It is disappointing that the House chose to exclude from the final transportation bond bill a low-income fare program that would help thousands who are struggling with the burden of transit costs and the high cost of gasoline, is proven to increase transit ridership, and is supported by more than 80 percent of people across the Commonwealth," the Transit is Essential coalition said. "More than 90 percent of low-income MBTA riders don't qualify for the limited existing low-income programs -- for youth and seniors. This current system is simply not equitable. We will advocate vigorously for a low-income fare program as the bill moves to the Senate."
The House choice on low-income fares could create friction between the branches if and when legislative leaders send the underlying bill into conference committee negotiations.
Senate President Karen Spilka, whose chamber will soon roll out and debate its version of the infrastructure bond bill, on Tuesday said she was disappointed by Gov. Charlie Baker's 2021 low-income fares veto and is "looking forward to continuing that conversation."
Other additions that featured in the House's mega-amendment include $50 million to support electrification of the commuter rail's Framingham/Worcester Line, another $50 million for electrification and rapid transit service on the Fairmount Line, and $50 million in grants and zero-interest loans to help commercial fishers purchase more efficient equipment.
Before sending it to the floor for Thursday's debate, House leaders bulked up the bill with $250 million for early steps toward a western Massachusetts rail extension and $400 million that the MBTA would use to correct harrowing safety problems identified in an ongoing federal investigation.
The Federal Transit Administration last week ordered the MBTA to take immediate action to address a staffing shortage in the agency's control center, insufficient protections against runaway trains, and a backlog of delayed maintenance. Two days later, T officials announced they would slash weekday frequency on the Red, Orange and Blue Lines to avoid overworking dispatchers to an unsafe level.
Asked what prompted House leaders to fold the money for the T's safety response into the bill, House Speaker Ronald Mariano smiled and referenced coverage of the FTA directives, "Do you read the paper?"
"We are in a situation where the feds have come in and said that our trains are unsafe. We've had two fatalities in the last six months," Mariano told reporters after a Democratic caucus. "We wanted to weigh in as having a source of money if we need to make some fixes to get this thing to a place where public confidence is restored. That's what this is all about. We've heard from the T that the ridership has been down since the pandemic. Well, maybe there's good reasons why it's down, and we have to start to address this."
The House added language via amendment to the bill that will require the MBTA to publish biweekly reports tallying the number of unfilled jobs across the agency, how long those positions have been open, how many hires it made in the past two weeks, and the amount of time it would take to train new personnel.
That would give a clearer glimpse into the staffing outlook at the T, where federal investigators warn the shorthanded workforce poses safety risks, as the agency careens toward an operating budget cliff.
Mariano called the $400 million figure "a placeholder" until investigators "identify the seriousness of the problem." Straus, who along with his counterpart Sen. Brendan Crighton will lead an oversight hearing into the MBTA, added that the money "doesn't translate at the moment to a known, specific list" of fixes.
"What we've seen is, across the board, different kinds of safety-related issues: escalators, fixed stairways, brakes, tracks, staffing levels. The list goes on and on. Doorways to subway cars. Different kinds of safety issues that have different causes have been happening at the T," Straus said. "Before the oversight is done and the FTA's final report is done, we don't know the exact financial number or the specific management recommendations that need to be made, but the $400 million should help the public realize that the Legislature takes it seriously."
The infrastructure bond bill now heads to the Senate, where top Democrats have not signaled if they support setting aside a pool of money for the MBTA's safety response.
A Spilka spokesperson did not directly answer a question about whether she supports the additional MBTA dollars, saying only that the Senate president "looks forward to reviewing the bond bill in its entirety."
The spokesperson also pointed to a joint Mariano and Spilka statement from Tuesday in which the duo announced they would seek an MBTA oversight hearing but stopped short of taking a position on funding to respond to FTA findings. Their statement did make clear that both leaders "expect to increase the amount of available funding" for East-West Rail.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, one of the chamber's three Republicans, said he believes "the T does need funding."
"The T has needed additional infusions of resources for quite some time, and the Baker-Polito administration has been making some of those infusions together with the Legislature," Tarr said Thursday. "It seems to me that we have some serious safety issues that need to be addressed at the T. Part of the consideration here needs to be: how will the additional resources be used to improve safety as opposed to just expanding the system?"
"That's particularly my concern with the western expansion," Tarr added. "I think there is good reason to proceed with that, cautiously, but first and foremost we need to think about how we improve the safety of the MBTA. We need to think about resources that need to go to that, but we also need to think about the continuing levels of subsidy for the operation. Years ago, we had agreed to forward funding in trying to make the T self-sufficient. Given what's happened with the pandemic, that simply is not possible, and we're still in a period of recovery, in my opinion, but we need to think about how those dollars are used."
The latest crisis at the MBTA could reopen debate atop Beacon Hill about not only a one-time injection but the ongoing, permanent funding for the system as well, particularly as T officials brace for an operating budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars to hit next year.
In March 2020, the House approved a package of tax and fee increases that Democrats said would have generated more than half a billion dollars per year to put toward transportation needs including the T, but the bill died in the Senate and legislative leaders have not embraced a new proposal since then.
"Obviously, it's been an ongoing problem, and we have to think of alternative solutions," Mariano said Thursday when asked if the problems at the MBTA would prompt his chamber to revisit a long-term revenue debate.
The infrastructure bill would steer about $2.8 billion toward the federal highway system in Massachusetts and another $1.35 billion to non-federally aided roads and bridges here.
It also calls for more than $1.3 billion to support MBTA capital improvements such as electrifying commuter rail trains and replacing the Green Line fleet, $200 million to promote or support electric vehicle rollout, nearly $65 million for regional transit networks and authorities, and several other spending provisions.
Baker kicked off debate by filing a $9.7 billion bond bill in March (H 4561) that he and his deputies said would maximize the impact of federal dollars flowing to Massachusetts under a new infrastructure law and also position the Bay State to compete for additional grant funding.
The bipartisan infrastructure law made billions of dollars available to states in competitive grants, but to get in the running, the Legislature needs to approve all of the spending upfront before the federal government reimburses.
About $3.5 billion of the original pot Baker proposed would put state dollars on the table toward grants.
Written by Chris Lisinski/SHNS