The public transportation services provided by the MBTA are crucial to the region's economic success and quality of life. Yet, the Commonwealth's plan for handling the funding of this agency has failed. In 2000, the legislature attempted to put the agency on its own financial footing through the passage of "forward funding." This plan was to provide 20% of state sales tax revenue to the agency, and in return, the agency would henceforth manage and discharge its own debt. The newly reborn agency was handed the responsibility for its existing debt -- but was also forced to takeover $1.8 billion in Central Artery/Tunnel commitments.
Since 2000, the predictions that "forward funding" was based upon have turned out to be wrong. Sales tax growth was conservatively estimated at 3% a year. In fact, it has been approximately 1% a year. Energy costs to run the system have sky-rocketed, as well as health care costs for employees. The legislation that was supposed to make the agency independent has instead hamstrung it with an unsustainable debt load.
In 2007, the Transportation Finance Commission issued this following recommendation:
The MBTA has over $5.2 billion in outstanding principal debt and paid $351 million or 27 percent of its operating budget on debt service in FY 2006 – more than the total of all fare revenue collected. About 35 percent of the principal amount of the outstanding debt ($1.8 billion) is directly attributable to carrying out Central Artery/Tunnel commitments. That debt is rightly the responsibility of the Commonwealth, not the MBTA. Level-funded over a 20-year period, this would shift about $117 million in debt payments from the MBTA to the Commonwealth. It should be emphasized that this debt must still be paid. The substance of this recommendation would transfer this obligation from the MBTA to the state budget.This $1.8 billion in Central Artery/Tunnel debt was incurred by court-mandated projects that the Commonwealth was required to fund, in order to receive approval for the Central Artery/Tunnel in the first place. It is time to enact the recommendation of the Transportation Finance Commission, and put the Big Dig debt on the Commonwealth budget where it belongs. This action alone would go a long way to closing the budget gap for the next fiscal year.
(mailed to the public comment address found in the MBTA news article)