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.
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.
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.