BOSTON (SHNS) – The House and Senate are sending Gov. Charlie Baker a bill to borrow and spend more than $11 billion to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure Sunday afternoon and Rep. William Straus told his colleagues that the bill addresses some of the “disturbing” things that his Transportation Committee has learned during its oversight investigation of the MBTA.
Baker, who has said recent T incidents are unacceptable but disagreed that the transit agency is a total mess, will have 10 days to act on the bill once the House and Senate take final procedural votes. Baker took office in early 2015 as the MBTA was crushed by a series of blizzards and the Republican governor has made the T a major focus of his time in office.
Both branches included $400 million in the $11.3 billion infrastructure bond bill (H 5151) that the MBTA can use to perform work required by a nearly unprecedented federal investigation that identified major safety lapses at the agency, and the House Transportation Committee chairman said Sunday that it also includes requirements intended to make the T more transparent about safety issues.
One provision of the bill requires that any safety-related report the MBTA has to make to federal authorities like the Federal Transit Administration or U.S. Coast Guard also be sent to the state inspector general’s office, and that the reports be made publicly accessible on the IG’s website. Another would step up the frequency of certain MBTA safety reports, Straus said.
He said the provisions are meant to address some of what the Transportation Committee has already learned as it has dug into safety at the T. Just days after the committee held its first (and so far only) oversight hearing, an Orange Line train caught fire on a bridge over the Mystic River during a morning commute, leading one rider to leap into the river below.
“There will be more as the committee continues, but as a result of the oversight process initiated by the speaker and Senate president, there are important changes in this bill already and no doubt there will be more,” Straus said Sunday.
Sen. Brendan Crighton, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said that the bill also requires the MBTA to establish a three-year safety improvement plan and to create a monthly public report of unfilled job positions and hires in the prior month, a topic in the spotlight with staffing shortages contributing to the T’s woes.
There is also language in the bill to create a mobility pricing commission, which will make recommendations related to things like public transportation pricing and congestion pricing on roads.
“This will make our transportation infrastructure more accessible, safe and equitable for all the residents of the commonwealth,” Crighton said.
The bill also includes $275 million that will go toward development of East-West Rail, a long-discussed passenger rail expansion to Springfield and beyond. It also would create a commission to study and take public comments on “public entities now in existence or that may be created by statute with the ability to design, permit, construct, operate and maintain” the passenger rail expansion.
“BIG NEWS: Transportation Bond Bill Conference Report is complete, just passed @MA_Senate, on its way to @MassGovernor, with East/West rail included!” Sen. Eric Lesser, a lieutenant governor candidate who has long advocated for project, tweeted from his campaign account.
Unlike the transportation bond bill lawmakers sent Baker in the closing stretch of the 2019-2020 legislative session, the bill on the move Sunday does not feature any language ordering the MBTA to implement a low-income fare program across the system.
Baker spiked that mandate from last session’s bill, saying at the time that the T could not handle rolling out a widely available reduced-price option for qualifying riders until it had “a financially sustainable plan in place to replace the lost revenue.” And because Democrats finalized that bill so late in the session, they had no way to flex their supermajority margins and push it into law over Baker’s veto.
This time around, lawmakers idled without action on low-income fares for the bulk of the session. The House quietly dismissed a similar requirement proposed via amendment to its infrastructure bond bill, and although the Senate approved making another pass at ordering low-income fares at the MBTA, the mandate did not survive conference committee negotiations and the final bill calls only to study the idea.
Activists who hoped lawmakers would succeed this year where they failed 18 months ago lamented the outcome.
“At a time of worsening income inequality, surging costs for housing and everyday essentials, and diminished MBTA service, it is deeply disappointing that the final transportation bond bill relegates a low-income fare program to long-term study,” the Transit is Essential coalition said in a statement. “The legislature â€“ which passed a similar low-income fare provision at the end of the last session â€“ has missed an opportunity to provide immediate and meaningful relief to thousands of low-income transit riders across the state.”
The bond bill conference committee report — which was accepted unanimously in the House early Sunday afternoon and then accepted on a Senate voice vote — also includes money for transportation infrastructure projects all around Massachusetts, totaling more than $11 billion.
“I am happy to say the investments throughout the commonwealth will provide better commutes, better environmental response to our transportation system and more reliability,” Rep. Norman Orrall, who said he worked on transportation projects as a civil engineer, said. “There is a lot of work to be done.”