By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 11, 2012….A possible transfer in the next year of MBTA ferry operations to the Massachusetts Port Authority would be studied under a T bailout bill that received initial House approval Monday morning.
The bill rescues the T from its near-term budget crisis, but drops a plan favored by some House members to immediately transfer ferry operations and assets to Massport. The bill would instead examine the potential sale of T-owned piers, parking lots and boats to the port authority within a year, while sweeping the state’s motor vehicle inspection trust fund of $51 million in surplus fees to close the red ink remaining in the MBTA’s $1.7 billion budget.
The new bill (H 4161) also includes $3.5 million for regional transit authorities, and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey said an agreement was reached on Friday with the Senate to support an additional $3.5 million for RTA’s in the fiscal 2013 budget, bringing the total increase to $7 million.
Under the bill, the Department of Transportation would be required by July 9 to report back to the Legislature on the time required to prepare for sale to the port authority in fiscal 2013 of ferry properties in Quincy, Hingham and Charlestown, including commuter boat service piers.
MassDOT would also be required to report by August 13 on the procedural requirements to transfer operation and ownership of the commuter boats “Lightning” and “Flying Cloud” to Massport during fiscal 2013, and Massport would have until August 31 to develop and present a plan to take over ferry operations.
The bill calls for $6.5 million in surplus snow and ice removal to be spent on transportation, with $5 million dedicated to the MBTA and $1.5 for regional transit authorities. Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed MBTA bailout legislation did not include any funds for regional authorities.
“I’m happy to say this does recognize the equity argument that the inspection trust fund has to help everyone in Massachusetts,” said Rep. William Straus, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee.
The House will likely pass the latest version of the bill Wednesday, with the T facing a July 1 deadline to balance its budget without resorting to additional cost-cutting or revenue-raising moves – an average 23 percent fare hike is scheduled to take effect July 1.
House Ways and Means polled the bill out of committee on Friday. The bill advanced Monday during a lightly attended informal session and the House set a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline for amendments.
The House-controlled Transportation Committee had recommended transferring operation of the ferries to Massport by July 1 in order to use funding from the sale of properties to balance the MBTA’s books and provide some relief to regional bus services. Both Massport and the Patrick administration expressed concerns about how quickly the transfer could happen, noting approvals needed from the Federal Aviation Administration.
House leaders say they’re still actively considering the transfer of ferry operations to Massport, but the bill now moving through the House no longer counts on that switch to happen before the start of the fiscal year.
“It’s not going to happen July 1, but I still am determined it has to happen this fiscal year. There is yet to be anyone in public, either in Massport or the governor’s office or administration, who has made any case that takes away from Massport clearly being the preferred agency to be running the ferry service,” said Straus.
“Also, I defy anyone to say that from a financial standpoint Massport is not the better agency to take on this obligation,” Straus told the News Service Monday morning.
Without additional aid from Beacon Hill, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, who oversees the T, said last week he would look at cutting back further on bus and rail passenger service.
While the majority of the $51 million in surplus inspection fees will go to the MBTA, $2 million will be dedicated to support regional transit authorities, some of which are facing similar financial hardships. Gov. Patrick had proposed using all $51 million for the MBTA, but lawmakers balked at using fees collected from drivers across Massachusetts to bail out the MBTA without sending some of the money to areas outside of the T’s district.
The new plan cut by nearly half the amount of funding the Transportation Committee had originally recommended for the regional transit agencies, but Dempsey told the News Service the House budget conferees agreed on Friday to back an additional $3.5 appropriation included in the Senate budget.
“I think we just want to do some due diligence,” Dempsey said of delaying the ferry transfer. “We are supportive of the concept and want to do that. It’s just how we do it, and how quickly we get there.”
The bill would also impose fines for fare evasion on buses, trains and trolleys of $75 for a first offense; $200 for a second offense; or $350 for a third or subsequent offense.