BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)– More than half of Massachusetts residents live within the coverage of the state’s 15 regional transit authorities, but the uncertain funding outlook for each RTA renders them unable to offer enough reliable service to fulfill potential demand, lawmakers and transit advocates said Thursday.

As the House gears up for a possible vote to override Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of $3.5 million in RTA funding, a string of speakers urged the Transportation Committee to support legislation that would boost how much money the transit authorities receive from the state each year and pave the way for major system-wide improvements. Service varies significantly across the 15 RTAs, particularly in contrast with the MBTA in and around Boston. Some RTAs offer no buses on weekends or on Sundays, and most do not provide trips late at night.

“There are too many people who are currently unable to access reliable transportation from the RTAs that would really benefit from it, and the Legislature cannot let these inequities continue,” Alexis Walls, an assistant campaign director for the Massachusetts Public Health Association, told lawmakers. “Choosing not to advance this bill will deny transportation to the millions of folks who either do not have cars or are unable to drive and also cut them off from opportunity.”

Rep. Natalie Blais and Sen. Harriette Chandler filed bills (H 3413 / S 2277) that aim to bulk up state support to RTAs and provide the agencies with a more predictable funding outlook.
The legislation would lift the floor for minimum state contract assistance to $94 million, the amount lawmakers proposed sending to regional transit in the fiscal 2022 budget, and would index future annual appropriations to increase alongside inflation.

Chandler, whose district includes many communities served by the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, said linking funding to inflation will ensure “the Legislature no longer needs to constantly battle with future administrations for adequate funding in budget deliberations.” “RTAs are an absolute necessity for some people to go about their day and live productive and fulfilling lives,” Chandler said. “If they did not have an RTA and if we do not choose to invest in our RTAs, the people who rely on them will have no other option. They do not have the MBTA, they may not have a car, and sometimes walking simply isn’t feasible.”

Their bill would also direct 50 percent of the revenue from fees on transportation network company rides using platforms such as Uber and Lyft to RTAs, require the Department of Transportation to fund RTA capital projects at the same rate as MBTA capital projects, and end a policy grading RTAs on farebox recovery ratio.

Another section of the bill would require MassDOT to support RTAs with crafting plans to transition to zero-emissions bus fleets, a step that supporters said will be critical as Massachusetts works to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as required under the climate law Baker signed in March.

In fiscal year 2020, the state’s RTAs reported total ridership of more than 23.3 million on fixed bus routes and paratransit service, compared to about 274 million on the MBTA, according to a MassDOT annual report. Both the MBTA and the RTAs receive state funding as part of their budgets every year, but unlike the MBTA, the regional agencies do not automatically get a dedicated portion of the state sales tax revenue as well — a stream that annually steers more than $1 billion to the T.

Transit and climate advocates argue the state’s support for regional transit authorities has not kept up with prior commitments or with rising costs, resulting in what MassINC’s Andre Leroux described as “a long stagnation of RTA services and, in many cases, cuts.” “Without better regional transit, we are stifling the economic development of communities outside the Boston area,” Leroux, who is leading MassINC’s Transformative Transit-Oriented Development program, said. “We shouldn’t be stingy with the rest of the state, and a comparatively modest investment in RTAs will produce a bang for our buck.”

One major issue many RTAs grapple with is uncertainty about their annual funding outlook until the Legislature decides whether it will override gubernatorial vetoes on the state budget, a dynamic once again in play. Lawmakers approved $94 million in funding for RTAs as part of the fiscal year 2022 budget, but Baker vetoed $3.5 million, shaving the allocation to $90.5 million.

House leaders have not outlined plans or a timeline for kicking off the override process, but MassDOT Chief Financial Officer David Pottier said Wednesday he believes the action could come as soon as Monday, which would give the department’s board a clear sense of the budget at its upcoming meeting.

Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus expressed hope Thursday that lawmakers will restore RTA funding to the level they approved. He also hinted that action could be forthcoming to mandate implementation of a low-income fare program at the MBTA, something else Baker vetoed from a transportation bond bill in January.

“There were some initiatives regarding low-income fare options that were in the bond bill that, in January, for curious reasons I still don’t understand, the governor vetoed. It’s likely that these will come up again,” Straus said. “And also in the budget veto messages, hopefully we’ll respond as well with regard to RTA funding. There was a consensus number, an appropriation number, between the House and Senate. The governor reduced that for reasons I still don’t understand. We’ll see if the House and Senate go back to that.”