Transit advocates hope stark report on MBTA finances delivers a wake-up call

Transit advocates called on state lawmakers Thursday to drastically boost funding for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority following a new report that warned the agency is heading for fiscal disaster in the coming years.

A report from the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found that the MBTA will be as much as $400 million short on its operating budget by mid-2023 and $13 billion short on its plans for maintenance and modernization over the next decade. Advocates and policy watchers say the findings should serve as a call to action.

“This is a fundamental, existential question that keeps having Band-Aids put on it year after year after year,” said Brian Kane, the executive director of the MBTA’ s Advisory Board.

As COVID-19 relief money and one-time state and federal funds start to dry up in 2023, the MBTA won’t be able to maintain its current system without $1.25 billion in additional revenue each year, the watchdog group found.

Advocates point to an array of potential funding options for transportation, including the Fair Share Amendment, a 2022 ballot question that would increase the state’s income tax to 9 percent for annual income above $1 million, fee hikes on ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, and congestion pricing — charging drivers in busy areas during peak travel times.

Governor Charlie Baker said low ridership, especially on the commuter rail, is “the biggest reason for the problem” during his regular appearance on Boston Public Radio on WGBH 89.7 on Thursday.

“So if ridership should stay where it is, it doesn’t change at all, that’s one scenario. If riders do come back because people come back to their offices, or their locations where they work, that’s a very different one, over the course of the next couple years,” he said. “I would argue this is kind of a very, very pessimistic scenario about what happens with regard to ridership.”

Baker said he expects the federal infrastructure bill making its way through Congress to deliver money for public transportation.

“I don’t think we should panic quite yet,” he said.

But the watchdog group found that even if the MBTA were to receive $2.5 billion from the federal infrastructure bill, the highest amount being discussed, and return to pre-pandemic ridership quickly, it still wouldn’t be enough revenue to bridge the shortfalls.

The MBTA projects that even if fare revenue returns to 88 percent of pre-pandemic levels by the fiscal year that starts in 2024, its operating budget will still face a $300 million shortfall. Even with a full ridership return, the MBTA will still be short $13 billion over the next decade for planned repairs and upgrades, such as partially electrifying the rail and bus fleets.

“Ridership is irrelevant, it’s a small fraction of the challenge,” said Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, a business group that focuses on transportation issues. “We should be looking at fares in terms of equity, not a way to solve the financial gap in the MBTA. That’s absurd thinking.”

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst at the left-leaning Mass. Budget and Policy Center, said he hopes lawmakers can increase revenue and adopt free and reduced fares to improve service and boost ridership.

“The fares shouldn’t be where we look for revenue,” he said. “The value of our transportation systems aren’t that we can sit back and admire them, they’re so people can use them. We get stuck in the debate of ‘we can’t afford this or we won’t have that,’ but we have to have the ambition and the imagination to do both.”

Earlier this year, Baker vetoed proposals to increase fees on Uber and Lyft rides, study congestion pricing, and provide fare discounts on the MBTA for low-income riders. He reiterated his opposition to the Fare Share Amendment during his radio interview Thursday.

Representative William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, described the funding options for public transportation as “an assortment of bad choices,” but said it’s time for the Legislature to choose.

“This is not a ridership problem, this is a financing problem,” he said. “No matter how many people are on there, you need an on-time, reliable, and most of all safe transportation network, and that takes money.”

Advocates warned that if the transit system does not receive a massive infusion of funding, service will decline, negatively impacting riders and the economy as a whole.

“The next time the T derails or lights on fire, I don’t want anyone to be surprised,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance. “It’s a matter of political will at this point. . . . I hope this is a wake up call.”