T board members call capital plan unrealistic

The MBTA Board, facing fare hikes and possible service cuts, postponed a vote Monday that would have authorized the agency’s five-year, $3.68 billion plan for capital improvements, after members voiced concern about borrowing an additional $1 billion to finance the program. 

MBTA Board chair James Aloisi said the plan was not a commitment to the borrowing and spending it prescribed.  Aloisi, Gov. Deval Patrick’s top transportation aide, said he planned to schedule a special meeting when the board will determine its course on capital spending.
The plan before the board on Monday dedicated 97 percent of the authority’s $2.58 billion share to so-called “state of good repair” investments in MBTA infrastructure.   The blueprint includes $1.1 billion in projects funded with non-MBTA sources, including $870 million in state-funded projects and $230 million in projects funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“You seem to be the only person in the room that doesn’t know, the T is broke,” board member Ferdinand Alvaro told the T official delivering the presentation. Alvaro said he thought voting for the program would “be a violation of my fiduciary responsibility” as a board member.

Board member Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, asked T officials, “What’s in the plan that’s sending the message that we’re doing things in a reform method? Until we can highlight that, my support is waning.”

Later, Williams said, “This is a house of cards, in my humble opinion.”

Aloisi downplayed the importance of the authorization. “It’s a plan. It doesn’t mean we will do anything,” he said, later adding, “I don’t consider this to be a statement that we plan to borrow a penny.” 

MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas said inclusion in the five-year program is a prerequisite for any project to receive funding. T officials said they were uncertain whether a missed deadline for approving the package would cost the state federal matching funds.

Aloisi also tried to quell concerns about potential, drastic reductions in MBTA service. He said reportedly developing plans for deep cuts, hitting rail and bus service particularly hard, were one idea under consideration.
“There are no proposed anythings,” Aloisi said during Monday afternoon’s T board meeting, adding, “Somebody decided to make public, I guess, an option that someone was looking at.”
Later, Aloisi told reporters he wanted to consider a wide range of options, including fare increases. A transportation revenue bill due for consideration in the Legislature would dictate some of the T’s decisions, Aloisi said.
The T Riders Union presented Aloisi with a $199.35 check from its March 9 “debt relief bake sale,” and held up an oversized cardboard version during the T board meeting. Taisha O’Bryant, a union representative, said the group wanted to give lawmakers information about the T’s importance.
“We know we need reform, but revenue is more important for the T to be concentrating on,” O’Bryant said, adding, “We’re trying to send a message to the State House to say, bail out the T from its debt.”
Under the capital improvement program (CIP), the T would purchase new Blue Line cars, commuter rail trains and coaches, and buses. Partial fleet overhauls for the Red and Green lines and commuter rails would also see funding, along with new ferry purchases and Orange Line vehicle designs.
Less visible improvements, according to deputy capital budget director Victor Rivas, who presented the plan, include new track, signal and power equipment, an increase of 38 percent in bridge rehabilitation funding, and new and refurbished elevators and escalators.