State House News Service | By Matt Murphy | 04/15/2015
BOSTON — Members of Gov. Charlie Baker’s task force on the MBTA could face pointed questioning in two weeks when they testify before a legislative panel, as some senators raised concerns Tuesday over the underpinnings of their recent findings.
Since the task force last week released its critical report of the MBTA’s management, the question left largely unanswered so far has been what the Legislature will do next to respond.
While Baker has said he plans to introduce legislation incorporating many of group’s suggestions later this summer, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have been reluctant to embrace any of the key findings, including its call for the MBTA to be put under the oversight of a financial control board.
“The next step is getting a chance to sit with the commission and asking some questions on exactly what their numbers reflect and where they came from,” said Sen. Thomas McGee, co-chair of the Transportation Committee. “I mean, the reality is, it’s a PowerPoint presentation, so I have a lot of questions about where did that PowerPoint come from.”
The Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing on April 27 for members of the task force to appear and answer questions about their report.
McGee, along with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Sen. Dan Wolf, hosted an informational seminar Tuesday exposing lawmakers, staff and others to some of the highlights of the transportation debate dating to the 2007 Transportation Financing Commission study that identified a $19 billion gap in revenues to support needed investment.
Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said he read the task force’s entire report, and is “puzzled” by key aspects and conclusions that either didn’t seem to match the data presented or had no data to back up the findings.
Specifically noting the finding that operating expenses at the MBTA were exceeding revenue, Lewis said, “We all know that. That’s not insightful. The question is, why?”
Lewis added, “I feel like we can’t take up some of the recommendations without having a solid grounding of how they were arrived at. I’m sure there’s a lot of validity in there, but I feel like more scrutiny is needed.”
Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, seized on MassINC pollster Steve Koczela’s presentation, during which Koczela noted that reliable data on commuter-rail ridership is still not available, and information on commuter-rail performance, dropped bus trips and absenteeism at the T lacks transparency.
While the MBTA task force reported that rampant absenteeism contributed to the loss of 6,400 bus trips this January and February, Koczela said the task force failed to point out that the lost trips in February, for instance, amounted to only 5 percent of overall bus rides.
“There’s no question that it’s become all but an accepted truth that we’ve got a huge absenteeism problem that seems to have been related to a spike in dropped bus routes,” Barrett said.
Koczela said, “However you choose to characterize the numbers, the context matters.”
Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, said her constituents on the North Shore pay $500 to $800 a year in tolls to commute to jobs in Boston, while workers from New Hampshire and the other northern and southern parts of Massachusetts pay nothing.
“I look at it as a question of fairness,” Lovely said. “Either everyone pays or nobody pays. And my constituents pay.”
She also raised anecdotal concerns raised by her constituents who ride the commuter rail of fares not being collected on trains.
Lewis asked Steve Silveira, author of the 2007 transportation financing report, whether the group had looked at a vehicle-miles-traveled fee to inject new revenue into the system by charging drivers based on the miles they travel.
Silveira said the public has been shown to harbor deep privacy concerns over vehicle-miles-traveled fees, and Koczela noted that it has polled as the least popular revenue-generating option for transportation at 18 percent.