MBTA rolls out new transit ambassadors

MBTA rolls out new transit ambassadors

Use of private contractor expected to save $4m a year

 

THE MBTA IS STARTING to ramp up its new transit ambassador program, its latest bid to improve service using private contractors.

Transit ambassadors, wearing bright red shirts emblazoned with the T logo and the words “Questions? Ask Me!” on the back, help riders with any problems they may have. The new ambassadors, who work for a Kentucky-based company called Block by Block, started working at the Chinatown and Massachusetts Avenue subway stations in early August, and expanded to South Station, North Station, State, Downtown Crossing, and Park Street over Labor Day weekend.

At the Park Street Station on Tuesday, an ambassador helped a few lost-looking tourists struggling with the fare machines. She said her job is to resolve issues and give the MBTA a more friendly face.  “When they [customers] have someone being nice and saying hello, it changes their mood for the day,” said Eyaona, who declined to provide her last name.

With the debut of the transit ambassadors, the T now has two sets of customer service agents, those working for Block by Block and those working directly for the T. The unusual arrangement arose from a deal the T negotiated with the Boston Carmen’s Union that requires the transit authority to retain 88 of the existing customer service agents while transferring 99 other “transitional” agents who were waiting for transit operator positions into jobs driving buses or subways.

As the 99 are transferred over the course of a year, employees of Block by Block will fill the gap. Block by Block signed a one-year, $4.1 million contract with the T on July 31 with three one-year options. Block by Block provides the customer service workers for the Downtown Crossing Business Improvement District.

The T estimate in a recent report to the Legislature that the outsourcing will save about $4 million a year once the Block by Block workers are fully deployed. A T presentation on the initiative in March suggested the savings would be even greater. The presentation said the cost of the existing program was $27.2 million, which could be cut to $16.4 million at the same service level or $18.9 million with a 50 percent service increase. In other words, the T said it could boost in-station staffing by 50 percent at 70 percent of the current cost.

MBTA officials say the T workers are paid an average hourly wage of $36; Block by Block employees are paid $12 to $17 an hour, according to the employment website Indeed. Blair McBride, the president of Block by Block, referred questions about employee pay to T officials, who said they didn’t have information on the salary levels.

T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the authority’s existing customer service agents have gone through retraining and will be soon outfitted much like the Block by Block employees.

James O’Brien, president of the Carmen’s Union, said he doubted the Block by Block contract would save the T much money because the existing employees are not leaving the agency. “No one has left, so is there really any savings?” he asked.

Pesaturo said the savings result from existing customer service agents filling vacant transit operator positions and their transit ambassador replacements taking their jobs at much lower pay.

While Pesaturo said customer feedback to the new transit ambassadors has been very positive, O’Brien said the program hasn’t gotten off to a strong start. Two of the ambassadors were fired last month after video recorded them getting into a physical confrontation with a disabled, sight-impaired rider after he tried entering the Chinatown station without a pass. One of the ambassadors tossed away the rider’s walking stick.

O’Brien said there was another incident last week at the Chinatown station, but Pesaturo said he wasn’t aware of it. McBride also said he wasn’t aware of a second incident.

Meet the Author

Natasha Ishak

Editorial Intern, CommonWealth magazine

About Natasha Ishak

Natasha Ishak is the editorial intern at CommonWealth magazine. Her duties include reporting and writing on the latest policy issues happening on Beacon Hill.

Before arriving at CommonWealth Magazine, she worked as a digital intern under NOVA/PBS at WGBH. She was a reporter in her hometown of Jakarta for four years, writing up stories at The Jakarta Post - Indonesia's oldest leading English-language daily, and as a production assistant on the popular news program, the Indonesia Morning Show.

Now in her second year pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Emerson College, she hopes to shed light on marginalized communities through stories related to politics, immigration, social justice and the environment.

About Natasha Ishak

Natasha Ishak is the editorial intern at CommonWealth magazine. Her duties include reporting and writing on the latest policy issues happening on Beacon Hill.

Before arriving at CommonWealth Magazine, she worked as a digital intern under NOVA/PBS at WGBH. She was a reporter in her hometown of Jakarta for four years, writing up stories at The Jakarta Post - Indonesia's oldest leading English-language daily, and as a production assistant on the popular news program, the Indonesia Morning Show.

Now in her second year pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Emerson College, she hopes to shed light on marginalized communities through stories related to politics, immigration, social justice and the environment.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Privatization has become a very controversial issue at the MBTA. Under a three-year exemption from the Pacheco Law, which regulates how state agencies can privatize work, the T has outsourced management of employee overtime and absences, cash collection, warehouse operations, and the customer service call center. The T is also preparing to privatize police dispatch services and bus maintenance work at three garages.

Pushback from elected officials, particularly over the bus maintenance work, has been strong. But as the T enters the third year of the waiver it shows no signs of slowing down. A number of legislative hearings on privatization are scheduled for later this month on Beacon Hill.