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Mass. House Approves Bailout For Troubled MBTA

By Bob Salsberg, Associated Press
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BOSTON (AP) — House lawmakers on Wednesday approved a temporary financial fix for the MBTA that would stave off, at least for now, deeper cuts in service on the Boston-area transit system.

The bailout bill, which also offers help to other struggling regional transit agencies, advanced on a 130-25 vote. It now goes to the Senate with a July 1 deadline for passage.

A key provision of the measure would transfer to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority $49 million from a state fund made up of automobile inspection fees paid by motorists and designated for environmentally friendly transportation projects.

The MBTA would also receive a portion of the state’s snow removal budget that went unused during the mild winter.

The board of directors of the nation’s fifth largest and most heavily indebted transit system voted in April to raise fares by an average 23 percent and reduce some service to erase part of a $159 million deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Rep. William Strauss, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said at the outset of debate that the steps previously taken by the MBTA only addressed about two-thirds of the deficit and that the legislation was needed to close the remainder of the gap. The agency is required by law to have a balanced budget.

Without passage of the bailout measure, T officials have warned they would have to make further reductions in service.

“If you are someone who is going to have to cope with a service cut … that’s a tremendous impact on your transportation needs,” said Strauss, a Democrat from Mattapoisett.

Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Republican from Billerica, derided the bill as a one-time “Band-Aid” for the MBTA, accusing the agency of failing to adopt meaningful cost-saving reforms.

“The MBTA will be back next year and for years after that, asking for millions more,” Lombardo said. “How many times will we help the MBTA before they help themselves?”

State officials and legislative leaders have acknowledged the need for a long-term solution for the financial problems facing not only the T but the state’s entire transportation network, brought on in part by debt associated with the now-completed Big Dig highway project. They have pledged to tackle the issue during the next legislative session beginning in January.

The bill approved on Wednesday had also met with some resistance from lawmakers representing districts outside the MBTA’s service area, who balked at asking their constituents to help bail out a system they do not regularly use.

Strauss said $7 million in additional state funding, including $2 million from the Motor Vehicle Inspection Trust Fund, was designated for regional transit systems such as the Springfield-based Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which is also considering increases in bus fares.

Other provisions of the bill include tougher penalties for fare evaders and a study of whether the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan International Airport, could assume operation of MBTA commuter boats in the future.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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