WGBH News Focus: The MBTA

Should Massport Help the T?

By Bob Seay & WGBH News

April 25, 2012

logan airport

Logan Airport benefits from the Big Dig and should therefore shoulder more of its debt, a former transportation secretary says. (Massport photo)

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is running a deficit, it's carrying a huge debt and its infrastructure is getting older and older as ridership increases. So, what's the best way to solve the T's problems?

READ: Explanations of the "Big Dig debt" from The Associated Press and the Boston Globe

A number of experts say part of the problem is debt payments from the Big Dig that were shifted on to the MBTA in 2000 — an issue cited, in fact, by a number of respondents to WGBH's online survey.
Fred Salvucci, former state transportation secretary, saw one dramatic way for the "T" to turn the corner:


"I think the short-term solution to this is for the Massachusetts Port Authority — which is a primary beneficiary of the transportation system and is in the black — to step up to the plate and provide some of the debt relief that the T requires," Salvucci said. "But they're not going to do it unless the governor and the legislature tell them to."

LISTEN: Fred Salvucci talks with WGBH's Bob Seay

Massport is an independent public agency that owns and operates major transportation footprints, from Logan Airport to Worcester Airport, from the Port of Boston to hundreds of acres of waterfront property. 
"Over half the cost of the Big Dig was involved in the seaport access road and the Ted Williams tunnel, " Salvucci said — and the airport is the biggest beneficiary of those roadways.
The response from Massport

Massport spokesman Matthew Brelis sent the following statement to WGBH:
"Massport has worked to support the state’s infrastructure in any way it can in a legally and financially responsible manner and it will continue to do so. Massport cannot ignore federal law which regulates the use of airport revenue. The federal government and the airlines take a very dim view of airport operators — generally cities, counties or authorities — using any money generated on the airport for anything other than the capital or operating costs of (A) the airport; (B) the local airport system; or (C) other local facilities which are owned or operated by the airport owner and are directly and substantially related to the air transportation of passengers or property.
"Logan Airport passengers did benefit from the Big Dig and the third harbor tunnel, and in the 1990s Massport used $365 million in airport revenue — with federal approval — to pay for the Logan tunnel exit and for the highway roads on airport. We were able to do this because the exit directly and substantially benefitted airport passengers, and we own the property the highway traverses.
"Three years ago, again with federal approval, Massport paid down its debt on the Tobin Bridge and then gave the bridge — and the $30 million it generates each year — to MassDOT.  And when the City of Worcester wanted out of the airport business, Massport stepped up, purchasing Worcester Regional Airport — which loses about $4 million a year — for $15 million. Not a good deal for Massport’s bottom line, but it was the right thing to do. We know how to run, maintain and grow airports; Worcester’s area of expertise is delivering municipal services to residents.
"We continue to look for ways to assist the T. That is why we are again in discussions with the FAA to see what we might be able to accomplish — absent Congress changing the law — in terms of increasing our contribution to the Silver Line. Massport spent more than $13 million in buying eight Silver Line buses and pays $2 million a year in operating costs to the T. But we want to increase our contribution and we want to increase HOV access to and from the airport.
"We are also asking the FAA to examine the feasibility of Massport subsidizing a ferry system that does not benefit the airport.
"We need to tread carefully because a wrong step could be serious: Massport could be blacklisted from receiving federal funding for airport projects, and we could lose the ability to use passenger facility charges for airport improvement (and we have spent or will spend more than $1.5 billion of PFCs on airport projects). We would face strong legal challenges from airlines and our own bondholders if airport revenue was used for some new project that was not directly and substantially related to air transportation.
"(Prior to 1982, when the federal Airport and Airway Improvement Act was passed, the Authority used airport (and bridge) revenue to support our port operations. We maintain that grandfathered ability today, and it, too, would be at risk if our support of new projects were found to be illegal)."

What you said

Here are just a few of your responses to our online "how you'd fix the T" survey that cited the Big Dig debt as a serious problem.

First: move the Big Dig debt back where it belongs. According to the state's Transportation Finance Commission, that would reduce the annual burden by $120 million.
— Matthew Danish, Allston

Take the Big Dig overages and put them back on the state.
— Cynthia Dye, East Boston

No longer make the T responsible for paying for "the Big Dig."
— Maggie Harling, Northborough

Do you have an idea about how to fix the T? Let us know. We may post your response online or use it on the air.


About WGBH News Focus: The MBTA

Love it, like it or lump it, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority touches nearly everyone's lives in eastern Mass. And it's in financial crisis, with newly announced fare hikes not enough to cover next year's projected $100 million budget deficit. WGBH News features special focus coverage of the tracks and troubles of our public transit system.

About the Author

"If I Ran the T ..."

Everyone who's ever rode on the T has an opinion about what problem they'd change first. If you were in charge, where would you start? Let us know.

The Fare and Service Plan

On July 1, the T will introduce fare increases and service cuts to cover a $159 million budget gap for the next fiscal year. Read the plan on mbta.com.


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