It’s budget time again (already?)

Last week, the House Committee on Ways and Means reported out its version of the state budget for fiscal year 2022, H.4000, and the Mass. House of Representatives gave it second reading. It’s supposed to be taken up again a week from Monday, and of course there’s a huge pile of amendments (nearly 1,200 proposed). I’m not sure if the deadline for filing amendments has passed already — this is announced on the House floor but it’s not on the General Court’s public “budget process” web site. I dug through the budget to see what’s in it this year, and was surprised to find very little of transportation interest; I guess everyone is already worn out from the current year’s budget and the transportation bond bill, both of which passed in the waning hours of the last General Court a little more than four months ago.

I already went through this in a Twitter thread but wanted to set out the story a bit more cohesively here.

The basic transportation provisions of the budget are little changed from last year: the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund gets $351 million (down from $401m in the Governor’s request), the Regional Transit Authorities get $94 million (up from $90.5m in the Governor’s request), and the MBTA gets $127 million. The MBTA appropriation, called “additional contract assistance”, is in addition to the $1.2 billion in dedicated sales-tax revenue that the MBTA receives automatically, and in recent years, before COVID-19, has been used to fund capital projects and the salaries of MBTA employees working on them. Because this grant is unrestricted, it could be used for both operating and capital expenses, and has been used in the current fiscal year to help plug the hole in the operating budget caused by the 90% drop-off in commuter-rail ridership. The $127 million appropriation is unchanged from last year. The Ways & Means budget splits the RTA appropriation, with most going to formula funding but a small fraction (about 4%) going to a discretionary incentive grand program administered by MassDOT Rail and Transit.

The budget bill has the usual collection of “outside sections” (non-appropriations language), of which the only notable item is section 9, which provides for transfer of development rights in local zoning codes. The Governor’s budget included outside sections related to data collection by TNCs (Uber and Lyft) and establishing a permanent MBTA board, but these were not included in the House Ways & Means text. (Both provisions could still be reported out as a separate bill.)

With that, we go on to the amendments that have been filed. There were only 10 transit-related amendments that I caught in my scan through the titles as submitted. (Members have the opportunity to amend or withdraw their amendments, but they’re not supposed to change the subject matter, and the House leadership will select the ones they don’t like and “include” them in a “consolidated amendment” that simply omits the language, ensuring they they don’t even get a vote.)

Funds a first-/last-mile transportation program in Maynard
Funds a “Quiet Zone” study for the Franklin Line (would allow trains to not blow horns at grade crossings if study findings are implemented)
Funds renovation of Stoughton Depot
Funds part of the Town of Ayer’s Depot Square project
Gives priority in RTA funding to those agencies whose current operating assistance accounts for less than half of operating costs, cosponsored by a large number of representatives
Strikes the Ways & Means budget’s funding for discretionary RTA performance grants and redirects the appropriation towards formula funding
Funds a noise mitigation study for Boston Engine Terminal and the Grand Junction railroad in East Cambridge and Somerville
Reinstates the language from the Governor’s budget for a permanent MBTA board
Renames Ball Square station on the new Medford branch of the Green Line “Ball Square/South Medford”
Funds a noise abatement study for the Wildcat Branch

I am pretty indifferent to most of these proposed amendments, but I have Opinions about the Governor’s proposed MBTA Board structure:

  • I think the size of the board, seven members, is good, although my preference is for the Secretary not to have a vote.
  • I think the composition of the board is problematic.
  • I think the term limits and the tying of certain members’ terms (other than the Transportation Secretary) to the Governor’s term is bad.
  • I think there should be more local representation.
  • I think there should be more expertise and a requirement for some international experience.
  • I do not think the board should be able to act by written consent in the absence of an emergency.
  • I think the members of the board should be paid for the substantial time commitment involved.

Here is my suggested alternative:

  1. The board shall consist of six voting members, serving staggered three-year terms, subject to reappointment:
    • Four members appointed by the Governor, who shall not be otherwise employed by the Commonwealth
    • One member appointed by the Mayor of Boston
    • One member appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board
  2. Of the members appointed by the Governor:
    • at least one shall be knowledgeable in public authority finance or auditing;
    • at least one shall be knowledgeable in transit operations;
    • at least one shall be knowledgeable in transportation engineering or heavy civil construction;
    • at least one shall be a native speaker of a language other than English;
    • at least one shall have lived as an adult outside the United States for at least twelve months; and
    • at least two shall be riders.
  3. The Secretary of Transportation shall be an ex officio member but shall have a vote only to break ties and to establish quorum.
  4. The board shall elect its own chair and vice-chair.
  5. When first constituted, the board shall draw lots to determine the length of each member’s initial term.
  6. The board shall have standing committees on safety, finance and audit, capital programs, and such other matters as the board determines necessary or convenient.
  7. The board may act by written consent of a quorum of members if it determines that an exigency exists requiring immediate action, and shall publish notice of such exigency expeditiously.
  8. Members of the board, other than the Secretary, shall be entitled to a stipend of $500 for each board meeting they attend.
  9. Chairs of board committees, other than the Secretary, shall be entitled to a stipend of $250 for each day on which they preside over a committee meeting, except days when the full board meets.
  10. The board shall hold a public meeting and take comment at least 18 times per year.
  11. The board shall report, at least annually, on the authority’s financial position, progress on capital programs, greenhouse gas emissions, and safety record.
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