Patrick eyeing unspent snow and ice funds to lessen MBTA money woes

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 23, 2012…..Gov. Deval Patrick said Thursday that his administration is considering the use of excess snow-and-ice removal funds to help limit the service cuts proposed by the MBTA, as the cash-strapped agency deals with a yawning projected budget deficit.

“It’s one we’re thinking about. It’s February. You know how New England is. We’ve had a good and calm and relatively snow-free winter so far. If the winter continues as it has been, there will be unspent snow and ice budget. That may be part of the one-year fix,” Patrick said, adding, “We need a permanent fix. We are working on both what the permanent fix ought to be … and also what a short-term measure ought to be so we can avoid some of the service cuts that are on the table right now.”

Patrick’s nod to the fact that short-term measures may be in the works to stave off potentially devastating fare hikes and service cuts under consideration at the T adds to mounting indications that state officials are giving serious consideration to preventing riders from bearing the brunt of the MBTA’s budget woes.

The state budget for fiscal 2012 allocated $50 million for snow and ice removal. Through Jan. 4, only $10.5 million had been spent to clear the roads during an unusually dry and mild winter, accounting for less than one-third of the average annual spending through that date.

Patrick emphasized that even if a short-term fix is implemented to help the T close a projected $161 million budget deficit this year, a long-term fix – and a recalibration of the state’s transportation finance strategy – is still in order.

“It’s not like I don’t have any experience with this. I proposed the gas tax a few years ago … It’s not easy to do. It’s a crummy time. People aren’t ever interested in spending more money, especially for the same old thing,” he said. “We weren’t crying wolf then, and we’re not crying wolf now.”

Patrick said he isn’t sure the gas tax is still a viable solution to the state’s long-term transportation funding woes.

“But I do know how we think about what we want government to do and what are the reasonable ways to ask people to contribute to that is critical,” he said. “And over the course of the next 12 months or so we’re going to have to deal with this, not just in the context of transportation.”

The MBTA is due to ratify a budget by April 15, and officials have suggested a budget would be in place as early as April 6. The agency is in the midst of a series if more than two-dozen public meetings to gather feedback from riders. Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has indicated that he’s predominantly heard that riders would prefer fare increases to service cuts when given a choice, although transit advocates have balked at his assessment.

The MBTA has offered two proposals as it seeks to close its budget gap: one would raise fares 34 percent across the system but impose a raft of service cuts that many riders said would leave them without a viable transportation option; the other would impose a 43 percent fare increase but limit the scale of service reductions.

Many riders have pled with lawmakers and Gov. Patrick for help, and in recent weeks, more and more members of legislative leadership have shown interest in a short-term solution for the T’s budget challenges.

But lawmakers have also emphasized that they intend to return to the issue as early as next year to develop a plan for statewide transportation financing, in part to address what some experts’ estimate to be a $1-billion-a-year shortfall in spending to maintain the state’s existing network of roads, rails, bridges and buses.

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