The Governor has accepted political responsibility for fixing the MBTA and has asked the legislature for a set of tools. We should be giving him as much as we can of what he has asked for.
The Governor has proposed a new governing board for the MBTA with powers that the current board doesn’t have. Under current law, the board of the MBTA is the same as the board of MassDOT — the state’s umbrella transportation agency. The MassDOT board has resigned and the Governor has appointed new members, so the Governor already controls the MBTA. Yet, the Governor’s MBTA reform bill proposes a new fiscal and management control board (FMCB) for the MBTA within MassDOT.
The Governor has explained that he needs the new board “to create focus.” Secretary Pollock raised the MBTA’s nebulous planning in her explanation to the Senate of why they need a new board. For years, as an advocate for transportation, I have been frustrated by the absence of a crisp reconciliation of planned versus actual project activity at the MBTA — they need a group of motivated and empowered people to ask management for clear plans, examine plan goals and assumptions, and audit the results. The MassDOT board, which meets relatively infrequently and has many other problems on its plate, can’t give MBTA planning the necessary attention.
While, in theory, Secretary Pollock has the power to create a supervisory working group with the same general charge as the proposed statutory FMCB, a statutory FMCB will be much more powerful by virtue of its visibility and transparency. While I had initial doubts, I think it makes good management sense to create a focused and visible oversight board for the MBTA and I will support the Governor’s recommendation to do so.
The Governor further proposes to give the new FMCB powers that the existing MassDOT board does not currently have. The most controversial change would allow the MBTA to privatize services without the pre-approval process required by the Pacheco Law. The Pacheco Law requires that any agency prove to the satisfaction of the state auditor that a proposed privatization will actually result in operational efficiencies (instead of merely substituting lower-paid outside workers).
There are certainly examples of privatization efforts that have gone badly wrong and a strong argument can be made for preserving some limits on privatization. On the other hand, the requirement to produce exhaustive documentation and to seek approval from the elected state auditor moves outsourcing off the practical list of options for most busy managers. Any privatization decisions, small or large, made by the Governor in the MBTA context over the next few years will be subject to a high degree of public scrutiny and the Governor will be subject to very direct political accountability for any bad privatization decisions. For some kinds of peripheral service, private carriers may offer flexibility that the MBTA will never be able to provide. I support the limited exemption that the Governor seeks for the MBTA.
Another controversial provision would bring the MBTA collective bargaining process in-line with other local entities. If a local public safety union cannot reach agreement with a municipality, the dispute goes to arbitration. Before Proposition 2.5, the arbitrator’s award was final and binding. Now, the local appropriating authority has the final say and can decline to approve an arbitrator’s award. The MBTA bargaining process resembles the pre-Proposition 2.5 regime. Putting MBTA collective bargaining under the current rules makes sense to me, and I am likely to support it, but there is a complex body of federal transit labor law that may limit our ability to move in this direction.
There are some elements I cannot support in the Governor’s bill, most notably the reduction in contributions into the Transportation Fund. But, when a political leader of any party has the courage to accept responsibility for a highly visible public problem, we should generally give that leader the tools he or she seeks to ensure success.