Same old plan won’t work at the MBTA

If agency cuts service, it takes years to recover

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and T General Manager Steve Poftak released a new plan, called Forging Ahead, to deal with the catastrophic drop in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At last Monday’s meeting of the control board, T officials indicated they were considering not going ahead with that plan. No one is discounting the seriousness of the situation, but what is concerning is the MBTA management’s initial response – cut service and lay off workers.

The control board used federal CARES Act money to balance the T’s budget through fiscal year 2021 (ending June 30, 2021), but is projecting a deficit of $577 million to $652 million in the next fiscal year.

There are numerous ways to deal with this fiscal downfall. As the Boston Globe has urged, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker could approve a modest increase in the gas tax. The Biden administration could push for additional stimulus funding to cover part, or all, of the deficit. But instead the MBTA is pushing a plan that calls for cutting service, initiating layoffs, and, if past experience is any guide, privatizing more of the authority.

In a normal world, low ridership would be a sign to cut service, but these are not normal times. Our doctors and nurses need access to public transportation now more than ever; we need them to be able to show up for work to care for our most vulnerable during the largest health crisis of our time.

Furthermore, the MBTA is spending ludicrous amounts of money on projects that have little, or nothing, to show for them. Exhibit A is an automated fare collection project that has cost $900 million to date, with nothing to show for it. The results are so bad the T is expecting to spend an additional $100-$150 million to update the existing system while continuing to work out the kinks in the new one. Is now really a time to drop close to $1 billion on upgrading a fare system when we cannot even afford to get our health workers to work?

Another solution we have all heard before – privatizing bus routes – was suggested by officials from the conservative Pioneer Institute in an op-ed in CommonWealth.

Privatization is not the answer. Just ask any commuter who has had to deal with Keolis, which operates the T’s commuter rail service. Or how about the maintenance facilities, contracted out to MANCON to manage MBTA supplies for in-house rolling stock and parts? The State’s Office of the Inspector General had choice words in a scathing audi, posted May 2020. Have you ever tried getting travel information from the outsourced Call Center? Their responses are usually along the lines of, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Even The Ride, which serves the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable population, has been boasting the use of Uber and Lyft, yet has been running in the red since the new program was instituted.

Throughout the pandemic, workers at the MBTA have risked their health and lives to make sure they provide on-time, safe, and reliable service to the people of Massachusetts. Even in these dangerous times, they have gone above and beyond to protect the riders that need this service. Unlike private companies, whose concern is to make a profit, the MBTA worker’s main purpose is to keep the service moving safely.

The Pioneer Institute’s push for about out-sourcing bus operations uses incorrect information and does not take into consideration the institutional knowledge of the workforce. The data referenced by the Pioneer Institiute was from 2015 and does not reflect accurate information. The MBTA Innovation Proposal set a cost goal for private companies of $27 per revenue hour, which includes expenses for maintenance and manpower prorated for each hour a bus is operational. The workers at the T did better in December 2017 with $25.23 per revenue hour. In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board reported in 2015 that MBTA mileage between bus breakdowns was the highest in the country at 11,496 miles compared to the next closest authority at 5,419 miles. Today, the T is averaging 29,595 mean miles between breakdowns, which is still the highest in the country.

These times at the MBTA should reflect the new normal, not the same old knee-hjerk reaction. What’s required are new realistic strategies that deal with a modern transportation system. Both the Legislature and the control board need to step up and do their jobs. It is time for the Legislature to increase the gas tax to fund new transportation spending. In addition, the control board needs to realistically manage the huge contracts the MBTA has solicited. The MBTA can no longer try to solve problems with the same old solutions.

Meet the Author

Timothy W. Lasker

President and business manager, OPEIU Local 453
Remember, when the MBTA cuts services in the past, it has taken years, if not longer, to reestablish those services. The riders and the communities the MBTA serve deserve better, especially during a world-wide pandemic.

Timothy W. Lasker is the president and business manager of OPEIU Local 453, which represents more than 400 middle-level administrative and professional MBTA employees.