The fiscal calendar year for regional transit authorities (RTAs) is the same as the Massachusetts state government: from July 1st of one calendar year to June 30th of the next. Since RTA budgets depend in part on funding provided by the state, the RTA administrators and their advisory boards experience the months from January to June as a period of troubling uncertainty. During these months they don’t know whether adequate funds will be proposed by the Governor and voted into the next MA fiscal budget by the Legislature.
This uncertainty plays havoc with RTA planning. Fiscal year 2017, when the Governor ;persuaded the legislature to level-fund the RTAs for the second year in a row, was particularly unsettling. With inflation, costs go up every year. Level funding the RTA at the same amount as previous years leaves the RTA with a yearly budget deficit. By July 1st, 2017, the WRTA Advisory Board had decided to balance its budget by cutting fixed routes and raising fares. This negative provision hurts riders who depend on bus transportation and particularly affects the economically disadvantaged.
In January 2018 there was again no increase in state funding. The Governor once more level-funded the RTAs in the budget he sent to the legislators. Within the WRTA administration there was discussion of eliminating all fixed route service to the southwest of the city. Over the next several months there was intense lobbying of the legislature by citizens, local politicians and the Drivers’ Union. Under this pressure, extra money was added to the state budget for the WRTA, avoiding a crisis of reduced service at higher fares. As part of the final budget agreement, a special task group was formed to examine the state’s RTA system in depth and make recommendation to end this annual chaos, with a long-term approach to funding the RTAs.
This task group was composed of legislators, RTA Administrators, members of the MA Department of Transportation, representatives of local municipal governments, and riders. Formed in September 2018, the task group met almost weekly and produced a draft report presented in March of 2019. This report contains a series of two dozen recommendations. Its first recommendation was to increase RTA funding to $90.5 Million, way over the Governor’s proposed funding of $82 Million. This would meet the needs of the RTAs for the next fiscal year. One task member was Harriett Chandler, who achieved similar increases in funding for RTAs while she was the interim leader of the state Senate last year. The same recommendation included a provision for an “inflator” to boost the funding level each fiscal year afterward. If these recommendations are implemented, it should break the senseless cycle that has plagued the RTAs for the past several years. This will allow RTA Administrators to address important aspects of improving the quality of service of the RTA operations. Many of these possible improvements are delineated in the other 23 recommendations of the task group’s report. One proposal is for better coordination of service between adjacent RTAs. Read the full report.