From State House News Service: Chris Lisinski, 10/5/21 5:18 PM
OCT. 5, 2021.....Acknowledging in the wake of a tumultuous month that a series of safety improvements have been "not enough," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Tuesday that the agency's long-term financial outlook remains strained and hinted that federal dollars may eliminate the need to rush through a solution.
Poftak told WBUR's "Radio Boston" that the sizable pot of COVID-19 stimulus funding the T received during the pandemic will help cushion the agency for roughly another two years, into fiscal year 2024.
That could buy time for state legislators, who in recent months have shown virtually no interest in addressing the structural funding issues that plagued the MBTA well before the COVID-19 pandemic cut into ridership and who sometimes choose to tackle thorny issues only when a crisis erupts.
"We do have a need to solve some sort of shortfall in the operating budget, but we do have a couple of years to figure it out," Poftak said. "On the capital side, we have sources for the capital budget identified for this year and the next few years. In the longer term, we are going to have to identify some new sources of capital funding."
Both internal (paywall)and external (Mass Taxpayers Foundation) estimates indicate the MBTA's financial woes will grow potent, with budget gaps of hundreds of millions of dollars per year, once it exhausts its roughly $2 billion in federal emergency aid.
One factor driving that strain is the muddy forecast for ridership.
Before the pandemic, fare revenue typically represented about a third of the operating dollars the MBTA brought in each year. Poftak said Tuesday that ridership has returned to about 60 percent of pre-COVID levels on buses, 45 percent on subway and 40 percent on the commuter rail network.
MBTA officials have been expecting that ridership will remain depleted for several years, and Poftak said they face an "open question" of how office reopenings will affect travel patterns.
"Will they come back five days a week or will they come back on some sort of hybrid schedule? My sense is it will be the latter," he said.
A string of incidents on the MBTA in recent weeks, including an escalator malfunction at Back Bay station that injured several travelers and a Red Line derailment, generated new calls for state government to ramp up its investment in the beleaguered agency.
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