The runaway red line train operator has been fired, and state officials say they’re prepared for another hard winter. But the biggest problem the MBTA is facing is deceptively simple — it all comes down to money.

Growing Deficit

The agency is trying to reduce a deficit over $240 million, while also funding daily operations and maintenance.

The problem, says MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola, is that the agency’s sources of funding are limited to state sales tax revenue, fares, and money from real estate and advertising.

Together, they make up less than $50 million of the MBTA’s $1.8 billion operating budget.  “In the overall scheme of things, those are relatively small numbers,” says DePaola, and the state legislature has been helping the agency cover the gap for a number of years.

Lawmakers have been pushing the agency to cut costs and raise revenue, but the MBTA’s deficit has been steadily increasing. 


Alongside cost-cutting measures, state legislators have demanded reform.

Governor Charlie Baker established a fiscal and management oversight board earlier this year to make recommendations to improve efficiency and expenses.

But there can’t be reform without revenue, says DePaola. “This all has to be done in concurrence with running the service on a day-to-day basis, so we still need to make sure we have adequate financial resources to deliver the service the area needs.”

Green Line Extension

Another seemingly impossible problem the MBTA faces is its Green Line Extension to Somerville and Medford.  Construction to extend the line by 4.7 miles began in 2012, and the project has been plagued by delays ever since.

The extension stalled when costs ballooned to $3 billion dollars, nearly a billion dollars more than the original estimate.

The first budget proposal, according to DePaola, was based on conceptual designs. When the team began to flesh out those designs, they grew in both complexity and cost.

“It wasn’t properly reigned in as it should have been during design development….it wasn’t until we had a hard money pricing by the contractor that we really realized how much those costs had escalated,” says DePaola.

Recently, the MBTA cut ties with the four contractors working on the project in an effort to cut costs. There’s also been calls for municipalities and businesses that would benefit from the extension to donate to the cause.

But the future of the project remains an open question.  “The current project that has been designed and advanced, we feel we cannot afford,” says DePaola. 

To move forward, MBTA faces the same problem it faces with the deficit - simultaneously raising costs and obtaining outside funds. According to DePaola, there’s limits to how much the agency can redesign the project. The $1 billion federal grant that makes the extension possible defines the scope of the project very specifically – if the agency were to make the line a few stops shorter, they would forfeit the grant.

Looking Ahead

It may be hard for customers to pinpoint any major changes in how the MBTA functions, but DePaola says he thinks things will improve in the coming year.

DePaola says he can see the legislature and the governor’s commitment to getting the MBTA on firm financial footing and working as efficiently as possible: “people should be encouraged that their leaders are focused on an issue that is near and dear to them." 

Listen to WGBH Morning Edition host Bob Seay's two-part discussion with MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola above.