Facing a $100M shortfall, MBTA trumpets solar array-parking plan

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BOSTON — The MBTA, whose electricity consumption is akin to that of 42,000 households, plans to harness the power of the sun with a contract to bring in $51 million over 20 years.

After expressing some concern about a lack of bidders on the T’s leasing to solar companies, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board authorized officials at the transit agency to enter a lease agreement on Monday.

Under the deal, Omni Navitas Holdings will install solar panels on the top of nine parking garages and at 28 surface parking lots, including lots on the Worcester commuter line but none in the city, paying $1.9 million the first year with 3 percent annual increases in rent.

Rendering of a solar array-covered MBTA parking lot.

State House News Service / Courtesy MBTA

Rendering of a solar array-covered MBTA parking lot.

According to T officials, the arrangement will generate 48 million kilowatt hours of electricity, and the solar power sold would be subject to net-metering caps within various utilities’ jurisdictions.

Net-metering allows solar generators to receive the retail rate for power sold to utilities, and for commercial and public-sector projects the percentage of solar net-metering in a utility’s area is capped by law. Lawmakers have revisited net-metering caps as the solar industry has bumped up against the ceiling in the National Grid service area.

The state now has 1,208 megawatts of installed solar capacity, according to the Department of Energy Resources, up from just a handful of megawatts about a decade ago.

Omni Navitas was the only bidder after SunConnect’s bid was deemed unresponsive, because the company only bid on three locations, a point of concern for Control Board Chairman Joe Aiello.

“At a certain point I’m going to run out of patience about seeing one bidder effectively showing up for these things,” said Aiello, who said it was “surprising” not to see more interest.

Technically granted the powers of a utility under its enabling legislation, the MBTA is the state’s largest electricity consumer, as third rails, catenary lines and T stations drain 453 million kilowatt hours annually, according to an earlier presentation.

The solar panels will include solar-lit lights maintained by Omni Navitas and will shield parking surfaces from snow in the winter, according to MBTA Assistant General Manager for Real Estate Development Mark Boyle.

The 37 parking facilities, mostly along the commuter rail, were selected because they are not lined up for development, though Boyle said the arrangement would not prevent future station expansions or transit-oriented developments.

“We did an analysis of all of our lots and determined whether there was any planned or future-possible development,” Boyle told reporters. He said, “There is a clause that allows us to take back the property.”

The bid invitation in April called for a two-year installation period, according to Boyle’s presentation.

Union Station

Sun Staff / Worcester Sun

Union Station was not included in the MBTA’s solar array-parking plan.

Under the agreement, the solar arrays are set to go up in garages at Alewife Station, Quincy Adams Station, Braintree Station, Woodland Station, Beverly Station, Salem Station, Lynn Station, Route 128 Station and Wonderland Station.

The agreement calls for solar installations at MBTA surface parking lots at Haverhill, Bradford, Ballardvale, Wilmington, Wakefield, Franklin, Norfolk, Norwood Depot, Readville, Gloucester, Montserrat, Hamilton/Wenham, Halifax, Whitman, Abington, South Weymouth, North Scituate, Cohasset, West Hingham, Weymouth Landing, Westborough, Southborough, West Natick, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park, South Acton and Hanson stations.

About that $100M deficit …

The MBTA faces an additional financial hurdle this year as projected sales tax revenue for the transit agency has dropped about $32 million, increasing the urgency to find new cost savings.

Layoffs have not been ruled out.

“As we seek to close what’s a $100-plus million deficit this year, everything’s on the table. Seventy five percent of our costs are wages and benefits so that’s a core area of focus for us,” MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve told reporters Aug. 1.

When the T passed its budget in April ahead of the July start to fiscal 2017, officials expected that higher sales tax revenues – a portion of which are dedicated to the T by statute – would help close a roughly $80 million budget deficit and wean the agency off regular bailouts in the state budget.

Sales tax projections have since taken a dip, widening the T’s budget gap and highlighting the “exposure we have to the sales tax,” Shortsleeve told the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board Monday.

If projections hold up, fiscal 2017 will still achieve a historic amount of sales tax revenue to help finance the authority’s roughly $2 billion budget.

The transportation authority employs about 6,500 people, and Shortsleeve said recent and future headcount reductions aim to achieve about $37.5 million in savings of unpaid wages and benefits. The target staff reduction is 300, according to Shortsleeve, who said the agency is bringing on new bus drivers as it seeks to reduce its administrative staff.

“Everything’s on the table. We’re going department by department, particularly in the corporate departments, identifying areas where we can streamline, we can run more efficiently,” Shortsleeve said.

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