By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Updating its budget to incorporate funds made available through $340 million in new taxes, state Department of Transportation officials are looking forward to cost-saving spending reforms, plans to launch new capital projects, and the potential for fare hikes next year.
The future holds the potential of up to 5 percent fare increases every two years, a reduction in costly borrowing by the state and regional transit authorities, and a series of capital projects, the first of which were rolled out earlier this week with announcements by Gov. Deval Patrick.
On Tuesday, state officials announced plans to reconfigure part of the Mass. Turnpike in Allston, buy new Red Line and Orange Line subway cars, and establish electronic tolling on existing toll roads.
On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said future announcements would focus on transportation improvements outside the Boston area as well. Patrick may make announcements next week when he speaks to regional business groups.
"More to come," Davey said. "Certainly, Tuesday was our very first discussion. I think in the very near future, we'll be talking about some other projects outside the Boston region."
Davey added that state officials recently announced a downtown Framingham Metrowest RTA station.
Davey also said there is "no scenario" of where the new subway cars would not need to be purchased.
The transit-riding public in the roughly 175 municipalities served by the MBTA could have a chance to discuss potential fare increases. MBTA officials are already talking with "stakeholders," officials plan to have informal discussions with commuters over the next few months and, in November, develop at least two scenarios for fare increases that would go into effect in July 2014, T officials told the Transportation Board on Wednesday.
The MBTA raised fares by an average of 23 percent in July 2012. MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott said the T is "extremely sensitive" about the impact of fare hikes and is meeting with youths, seniors and the disabled while trying to determine how to proceed.
The tax bill allows the MBTA to raise fares up to 5 percent every two years, according to MBTA officials, while also buttressing the state's whole transportation system with new funding.
Fare hikes are already on the minds of seniors, youths and other riders affiliated with the coalition Public Transit-Public Good.
The coalition is planning a press conference next Thursday and will testify in support of legislation that it says will protect people who are "being priced out of public transit."
The group says the infusion of transportation revenue "failed to undo last year's extreme fare hikes for seniors and people with disabilities," cutting into household budgets of individuals with limited incomes.
MassDOT Deputy Financial Officer Thom Duggan said the updated budget, which the Transportation Board approved unanimously, would free the agency up for new capital spending by moving all highway workers off the debt-financed capital budget by June 30, 2016.
The new budget also offers long-term savings for the state's 15 regional transit authorities by forward-funding the regional agencies, meaning they will not need to engage in costly borrowing to meet budget obligations.
Duggan said the budget would also add the equivalent of 85 full-time highway-division employees to work on capital projects, and additional Registry of Motor Vehicles employees to reduce wait times for drivers.
For the first time, MassDOT will submit a combined capital plan for the MBTA and the rest of the state agency, Davey said. He said that capital plan will be submitted in November, and transportation officials are now looking at ways to potentially encourage walking and bicycling in all projects.
MassDOT Chief Financial Officer Dana Levenson said the system is engaging in "truth in budgeting," estimating the cost of removing snow and ice based on the last five winters, rather than relying on an expected springtime request for additional money from the state.
Highway Administrator Frank DePaola said the department has reduced the cost of road-clearing with new methods of salting roads using a saline solution, and said the additional hires will provide more state workers, reducing the reliance on contractors during storms.
DePaola said the cost of clearing one inch of snow statewide has fallen to $1.2 million, from where it used to stand at about $1.9 million.