Governor’s MBTA Fix

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.

At the end of the FY16 budget debate, the Senate unanimously adopted a budget amendment giving the Governor the financial control board that he had requested with only a couple of small adjustments. In the final version of the FY2016 budget, after the conference process, the legislature finalized this new structure.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

71 replies on “Governor’s MBTA Fix”

  1. I 100% support Governor Baker in the changes he proposes for the mbta. This past week, the 66 bus was late by about an hour 3 times! There is no snow. The weather was perfect so they mbta cannot use the snow as excuse. One of the bus drivers was very rude to customers as they boarded the bus. Apparently, there is no interest by the mbta to improve customer service. Please, allow Governor Baker and stand with him so other democrats will do the same. The mbta is an embarrassment of a system.

  2. I agree with your appraisal. Given the governor’s willingness to spend the political capital, his legacy will include either success or failure depending on the results of his actions.

    Thanks for your appraisal Senator!

  3. More accountability and executive powers are a good thing and should help with improving the MBTA. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the success criteria takes into consideration the mission of the MBTA and doesn’t narrowly define success in just fiscal terms. Is the MBTA going to be judged on reliability, frequency of service, some form of demographic equity across the neighborhoods? If not, I’m afraid that we’re looking at a period of slashing and burning of our treasured system.

  4. I think privitization is not a great idea. If there is to be any, the conditions under which it occurs should be carefully stipulated. Even if there is public scrutiny for the first few years, this will diminish over time. What you describe here is not sufficiently specific nor does it ensure that there will be some kind of oversight that is less than the Pacheco law but greater than what seems to be being proposed.

    1. Thanks, Judith.

      I agree that there is room for some restrictions on privatization in the T — I don’t think anyone is talking about privatizing the core of the MBTA and language could make that clear.

  5. Senator Brownsberger, I support and agree with your long term vision. As a Belmont resident there is a need to overhaul our MBTA. Our MBTA is an antiquated version of transportation for a 21st Century City Boston. Red, Blue, Green Orange line trains are in poor condition specially when it comes to winter. Orange line reeks of open septic in almost every car. The recent winter was a catastrophic failure for the MBTA. Privatization will not help. Let the MBTA be governed by the state which will allow Massachusetts residents to be empoyed.

  6. Will,
    My gut says don’t trust a Republican when it comes to collective bargaining and privatization of public benefits. I agree that the MBTA needs more focus and less cronyism. The Senate must work with this governor to advance the public interest but keep him on a very short leash.
    Thank you for all you do,
    Deborah Theodore

  7. Thank you for this information. I am glad you want to support the governor’s plan.

  8. I agree with your very thoughtful position on all counts, as usual. The MBTA is big enough and in enough trouble to require a responsible board dedicated to it only with real power and accountability. Regarding privatization, whether private or public, accountability and performance measurement needs to be built in to all service agreements. The private sector is often better at that, but privatization is not a panacea, and will not automatically yield improvements.

  9. I agree with all of your thoughts, Will. I’d like to wait until we get fiscal transparency prior to allocating more money to the MBTA.

    You didn’t mention this, but I don’t think the MBTA should be expanded (connecting south and north station, adding a line to New Bedford, or connected any line to Medford or other communities.

    Hingham and Salem ferry riders should have no subsidy, or adequate subsidy should be paid by the respective towns.

    Current T routes should be improved prior to any expansion.

    Thank you.

  10. Hi Will,
    I would feel more comfortable with the Governor’s proposal to create a governing board if I knew who would be appointing the members. Also, I believe it can be dangerous to privatize transportation services. I believe there have been studies which show higher customer and employee dissatisfaction than in publicly run ones. In terms binding arbitration, I believe the MBTA employees should have that right. Without it, contract disagreements can drag on for years (much to the employer’s benefit). Please don’t forget that in your very own district, the Watertown Firefighters have been working without a contract for almost six years. This should be unacceptable to all of us.

  11. I have concerns about the governance of the organization. Looks like a governor/legislature tug of war. Can we expect the same group of people who broke the system to fix the system? I think the Advisory Board should be the controlling authority having jurisdiction. The “leaders” of the MBTA should be appointed by the Advisory board and would be selected, hired and fired by the Advisory board.
    Get rid of that name “Advisory” and call it the MBTA Federation of Communities or something like that. And if DeLeo or Baker does not like it they can pound sand! What they propose will not work, and we will be talking about the same thing 10 years from now. They don’t call the MBTA Mister Bulger’s Transit Authority for nothing.

  12. I agree that if Baker is going to accept responsibility for fixing the MBTA, he should be given the tools to do so. He, or someone, particularly needs to be given the tools to fix the conditions that drive costs up and productivity down. However, his proposal to cut the contribution to the transportation fund (by $500 million?) and eliminate the cap on fares makes me concerned that he is more worried about the state budget than about fixing the MBTA. Before he is given the tools, he should commit to an end-game that is more than just cost-cutting.

    Moreover, as a long-time organization consultant, I don’t see the value of a new “oversight board”. Who will they be? What skills will they have? How much time will they spend? What will their brief? Why can’t these resources be built into a sub-set of the transportation board and into the MBTA management team itself? It may be good PR to set up a “new” visible structure to deal with a public problem, but it doesn’t always make sense beyond the PR.

  13. My quick (and not thorough) analysis of the privatization issue is dominated by my perception that the absolutely worst performance of the T system this winter was of the virtually privatized commuter rail component. I was astonished to hear how long it was taking for the rail to project a return to full service, and feel that the unprivatized subway/bus components were dismal failures this winter but still significantly better than the privatized rail components. Structurally, incentives under privatization and “short[er] term profit” oriented privatized systems do not bode well for “low likelihood but high impact” contingency planning and disaster preparedness advance expenditures (Is Fukushima another case in point?). I would generally like to see the Pacheco “roadblocks” to (profitization) privatization not weakened, though I could likely accept some very small “testbed” of privatized T services as an incentive and reminder to the entire T workforce that customer satisfaction must motivate their performance, and that their sinecure is potentially at risk by the threat of expanded privatization (a goal analogously effectively served by the presence of a very small charter school component to goad the public school system to avoid complacency).

  14. I agree with your position entirely and am proud to have you as our senator.

    I believe the Pacheco bill has become a hindrance to reform of public services in the state and should be waived for the T if not repealed completely.

  15. Dear Will:

    I appreciate your statesmanship, but I’m afraid your logic is disconnected utterly from the everyday reality experienced by workers and students who depend on the MBTA. My own experience includes a Red Line commute to in downtown crossing, then Orange Line out to Stony Brook or Green Street. I defy anyone to make this commute without acknowledging the disgraceful inequality and fundamental civic injustice that so ironically and concretely manifests itself along the way. The condition of the cars and the stations moves fluidly from marginal to shameful. I have to say it’s extremely disappointing to hear you speak about privatization and reorganization as if they were, at least in this context, anything other than outright shams. (Can you cite a single example of privatization of an underfunded mass transit system resulting in improved commuter safety and performance?) I hope you and other readers might take a moment to read the link to ACE’s blog below. I’d argue that this is the sort of analysis we’re going to need — and need to push Baker to respond to — if we’re to stand any chance of saving our public transportation system here:

  16. I oppose allowing privatization. England privatized its trains and its underground and the service declined disastrously, with accidents and fatalities. Cut to the bone, no transportation system can function (look at AMTRAK).

  17. Will,

    Thanks for keeping us informed. I am encouraged that the the Governor is taking responsibility for fixing the MBTA and that he should be given leeway to get the job done. I think he is a good man for the job, given his track record for turning around Harvard Pilgrim.

    I echo the concerns listed here about privatization but I also know that the MBTA is far too generous with its time off policies. According to the Globe, MBTA employees take 11 weeks off per year more than 2 times that of similar agencies. Such waste is costing us way too much and should be stopped and the savings reinvested in the system.

  18. As a long time user of the T, tho now a Senior, retired, I do support the Governor’s plan including the independent board that should be put in place with sunset legislation of no longer than 5 years, I yes I agree the T needs to be able to properly outsource work if cost effective, so the description you give of how presently they can bypass the Pacheco Law is appalling & that should be PERMANENTLY corrected!

  19. During the recent unfortunate events of this past winter, it was stated that new cars take about three years to get. From an operations standpoint we should be on this now, taking into consideration any tech changes to rail improvements. Pensions is a whole different game that needs challenaging.

  20. Thank you for supporting the governor’s bill. I am particularly impressed that Gov Baker resisted the pressure to simply throw money at the T as the chorus of its supporters demanded and instead worked to understand the reasons behind the T’s underperformance and develop a management structure to address them. This is far more than previous administrations have done.

  21. I believe that in order to insure that the MBTA is really improved, the Pacheco Law must not be bypassed.

    The problems at the T are not just the employees.

  22. Will,
    I’d feel a lot better about the governor’s proposals if he acknowledged that not only oversight/management changes were needed but additional funding should also be considered. Without that element the proposals seem more political than real.

  23. It was a tough winter, and Gov Baker did his best to get federal funds. He was turned down by the federal government for millions of dollars of repair for winter damage. The MBTA is running pretty well considering its huge overhaul

  24. I agree with Will’s stance and logic.

    The MBTA needs focus on its substantial problems and governance which “owns the problems” and has the power and freedom to make substantial changes quickly. Unspent money on maintenance and an average days absent per worker of nearly 60 days a year are two examples of poor or absent management.

    Privatization is not a panacea, per the commuter rail example. But outsourcing some functions, like some part of the maintenance, might get a lot more work done quickly under a tight “pay for performance” contract. Keep the current funding in place until we know, for sure, how much is needed to fix the problems–quickly.

  25. I agree you should support the bill. The executive branch should have strong contols over the MTBA, which, along with its pension board, has run amuck.

  26. Just like in our Federal Government some boards are staggered to prevent complete take overs by a new administration. The MassDOT board was one of them. While I don’t know how he got them to resign, my fear is that he will move to replace other staggered or former appointees of past governors. What stops him from trying to pressure Judges to resign so he can place his own choices there? Just something to think about. Keep up the good work!

  27. I think the last sentence here is a very dangerous sentiment: “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.” I don’t think there should be an initial bias of support before the tools and proposed solutions are reviewed.

    In the US and countless other countries, privatization has proven itself to be a failed solution–and one that brings decreased accountability (and often higher costs).

  28. The governor exhibited a strong antiunion position in the crisis and no leadership in addressing the MBTA crisis. How can you propose to give him more control than he has already taken?

    Privatization has a role and does work in some instances but clearly is not a suitable option for the MBTA. The system in private hands would have to generate profits for its investors. Raising the cost of service is not an acceptable solution as it unfairly burdens the working people of the region and discourages those with a choice to stay in their cars.

  29. Will,

    Thank you for keeping us updated. One suggestion I would make is to look at things not only from a top-down perspective, but also from a bottom-up one. What I mean is that there are some real and challenging technical problems, which obviously MBTA engineers cannot solve themselves. We are blessed to have the best engineering schools and companies in the world and these very same schools and organizations are served by a transportation system with significant technical debt. So, I would suggest that a public committee of prominent engineers (mechanical, electrical, communication, computer science etc) is formed to look at the nuts and the bold of the issues. Hopefully, such bright people can contribute a lot. Just think about it – frequently there is “switch problem” or a “disabled train”. That messes up the schedule for hours during the busiest commute periods. I suspect that most of these problems can be avoided if the State tap the expertise available in the public domain.

    Perhaps such initiative can be just the beginning of a broader public involvement in the MBTA affairs.

    1. It’s an attractive idea. I will say that there the MBTA maintenance guys probably have a better understanding of the problems than anyone else in the world. They’ve been keeping old equipment functional way beyond its lifetime.

  30. Opposed to privatization at any level.
    Need to educate “the people” about the need for increased taxation to fund public transportation. Nothing is free, but don’t trust private companies to act in the best interest of “the People”. They have a
    ruthless bottom line mentality. They ( and their stockholders) come first and the people be dammed.

    Greetings from an elder,

  31. Will,

    I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other on these reforms, but I can’t see how the MBTA can function without more money. And it should not come from fare increases. Fares have already increased many times the rate of the increase of the gas tax over the last several decades. This is wrong in terms of equity and the environment. People who can’t afford to own cars are suffering. Those who can are not paying the full cost of their driving to the environment and society. While I’m all for a better functioning MBTA, we cannot wait any longer to make the investments it needs.

  32. Senator,
    I commend you for your thoughtful piece.
    If we want the MBTA to be a reliable and financially sustainable public transit system, we need real change like the kind you outlined.

    Eileen McAnneny
    Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation

  33. Hi Will. Thank you for this important update. I am disabled and use a walker and had to go stay with my brother in the suburbs for February and March, partly because ithe T, in any form, was out of the question for me. I couldn’t risk one of those “standing on the platform” waits.

    I am not happy with the Governor so far, as removing tax breaks for the film industry chops off a way to have a decent living for most of our theatre and film professionals. I thought it another example of mis-directed tax cuts. Please update me on that — I think most of it happened while I was away. What is your position on this. This is standard Republican fare: robbing from the poor to give to the poor (E I C), rather than take a tax break away from large corporations.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this.

    Kind regards,

    Janet Kenney
    52 Strathmore Road #44
    Brighton. 03135

    1. Hi Janet, much of the film tax credit goes to movie stars and Hollywood producers. It is not an efficient way to help people in Massachusetts. It’s probably here to stay, but will get some discussion in the Senate this week.

  34. I trust your judgement. We must stay committed to a reliable, affordable and financially stable public transportation system if we are to stay competitive in attracting business and talented workers to the area. As always, thank you for being such a thoughtful, communicative legislator.

  35. I applaud Will Brownsberger for his blog. The issues are very complicated, including mismanagement, lack of funds for an aging system, pensions and the like. Despite the obvious effects on traffic in downtown Boston and other hardships due to the extended shutdown little attention has been focused on the state’s economic dependence on the “T”, not to mention millions of commuters.

    The over-reaching problem, however, is public perception of the most important problem facing public transportation, and NO POLITICIAN will focus on this issue in an effective manner. The common understanding is that public transportation is heavily subsidized. Compared to what? The automobile? Hardly. We, including those who pay taxes but do not drive, subsidize the use of automobiles more than most of us realize. The Federal Highway Administration uses gasoline taxes or user fees to subsidize 90% of the building of highways. But who pays for the remaining 10%? Who pays for the cost of the land needed to build the road? Who pays to the lost property taxes on the land that was once occupied by former owners – year after year after year? Who pays for the health problems and environmental degradation that result from automobile pollution? As your nice new auto tires wear away, have you ever given a thought to where all that rubber goes? Much of it, along with ground up road kill and leaking crank case oil, winds up in our rivers and lakes, killing plant life, aquatic life as well as making the water unsafe to drink or swim in. WE ARE ALL PAYING DEARLY.

      1. One of the very best ways to entice people out of their cars is to provide an inexpensive, reliable means of public transport. That should be the goal here. Privatization for ideological reasons won’t do that, in my opinion. Changing negotiated rules for resolving disputes won’t do that. More money, on a level with the subsidization of the automobile, and taking into account the negative consequences of automobiles (pollution, degradation of health, lengthier commutes), under good management will help. That’s what we should be aiming for.

  36. I don’t think we need yet another board to watch over the MBTA. Instead, the existing MassDOT board should recruit and appoint a strong general manager, from inside or outside the T and task the general manager with determining the T’s needs and proposing and implementing a plan to meet them. Creating yet another level of bureaucracy will do nothing but delay the process of improving the management of the T. If a new board is created, the new (or acting) manager will spend far too much time gathering information for the board members and preparing for meetings with them. The operational problems that exist will continue to fester because the manager won’t have time to deal with them. Instead of looking around for five capable people to appoint to this new proposed board, the governor should be looking for one capable person to run the T.

  37. One concern I have regarding privatization of MBTA services in that a private entity may cherry pick more profitable routes and leave other routes under-served. Public transit is a public good that is essential to the economic development of the region.

  38. Definitely would not concede any power to the new governor that would allow him to privatize anything.

  39. I wonder about the need to create another level of bureaucracy to oversee the T. Perhaps it would be possible to work within the framework of the existing situation. I am also concerned about the possibility of unnecessary leaning toward privatization. And the possibility of increased fares is not something to be taken lightly. Once fares increase they never decrease. We need to make it easier to ride the T. I think it would be good for the governor to ride the T.

    1. I do think that the T management can benefit from an active board. A good board — granted, that is an assumption — will make their decision making much stronger and enhance the credibility.

  40. Hi Will –

    The current oversight system does not work. The proposed control board would have the focus and accountability that the MBTA needs.

    Removing the fare increase cap might be a good idea, maybe not. It may serve as a brake on spending, forcing authority to set priorities. I do think the T needs more money, I do question the need to lay more track, given existing needs.

    The suggestion of a committee of engineers from another commenter is excellent. I recall an interview with Fred Salvucci about the Big Dig. One of his observations was you want your engineers to be arguing it out, fighting about what the solution should be, that’s how problems are prevented and resolved. Include MBTA maintenance staff, as you said, they know a lot about keeping old equipment moving. The other point I remember Salvucci making was that there needs to be an owner, someone who is involved during the construction process, and will be responsible for it after everything is built. The Governor is willing to take ownership, I think that is a good sign.

    Thanks for asking for our thoughts.

  41. According to the CLF,

    Baker’s reform law would remove the requirement for free or substantially reduced-price transfers between modes.

    If passed, that would be a terrible mistake, and far worse than a fare increase.

    The MBTA system, as passed down from the Boston Elevated Railway-era, is based around the idea of having riders tranfer from surface lines to rapid transit lines. That has persisted to this day in the form of bus/subway transfers.

    Having those transfers be affordable, efficient, and convenient is critical to the proper operation of public transit in the Boston Metro region.

    Charging a rider two fares for a bus/subway trip would be unaffordable for many people, and would discourage proper use of the system.

  42. I think it’s a reasonable plan, and I believe that a board dedicated to overseeing the T is a good idea. I do worry about fare increases, though. We have had two in the last few years, but have not seen any improvements in service or the T’s finances.
    And none of this will be worth the trouble without more funding.

    1. There is no change in fare policy in the proposed law. Fare increases are limited by current law to 5% every two years and will remain so limited under the proposed law.

      Nor did we adopt provisions of the Governor’s package that would have reduced funding.

  43. I’m no fan of the Carmen’s union. The sweetheart deal it made with Governor Cellucci in 1998 that got them an unreasonably big pay raise and that got Governor Cellucci their critically important endorsement in his race against Scott Harshbarger was indefensible. However, I think that, if we’re going to make it illegal for public employees to strike, we should give them truly binding arbitration to resolve major disputes they have with management. Permitting a neutral, third party adjudicator to make a final call on major controversies between employees and management is both fair and practical because it will generate credible outcomes that will foster the kind of peace in the workplace that will inure to the benefit of the T and its passengers. It strikes me as patently unfair to create a labor management structure in which one of the two parties can refuse to enter into a reasonable agreement with the other, forcing the matter to arbitration and then have the discretion to reject the dispute resolution that is proposed by a neutral arbiter. When this sort of thing happens at the local level (as it recently has with respect to the firefighters in Watertown), there is a decent chance that the resulting drama could generate enough of an uproar to sway the outcome of the next local election, providing a political check on the relevant actors. However, this political check is unlikely to operate in the context of a decision by unelected MBTA managers or board members to reject an arbitrator’s decision. The only political figure anywhere near that situation would be the Governor and it would be very difficult to turn a gubernatorial election on any one event or issue. With this in mind, I hope you will reconsider your position on this issue. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Dan.

      As to the binding arbitration issue, I think MBTA unions should, in principle be on the same footing as public safety unions. However, I do agree that there is a difference between the MBTA context (where the control board is cognate with management) and the municipal context where the appropriating authority may have a slightly take. I also think that there are relevant federal labor law issues that need study. So, I’ve stopped short of embracing this element of the Governor’s proposal.

      This is for me the hardest element of the Governor’s proposal to finalize my thinking on. It also is not the most important element of the proposal as I understand it. I think we have already addressed the most important elements.

      So, I’ll be listening carefully to additional input on this facet of the problem.

  44. How can the Carmen’s Union fix their image? I been observing the IBEW 103, Plumbers-12 and New England Carpenters Union. The all have this in common, a win-win strategy that they benefit the customer as well as the member. The issue is how do they benefit the rider and taxpayer?

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