Baker presses lawmakers for T control board
Chelsea, Springfield turnaround experts testify
Gov. Charlie Baker turned up the pressure on state lawmakers, appearing at a joint transportation committee hearing Monday flanked by former Chelsea and Springfield officials who expressed strong support for his MBTA fiscal and management control board plan.
Baker often cites the Springfield and Chelsea control boards as frameworks for the approach he wants to put into place at the MBTA. Installing a control board for three to five years was the major recommendation of the special review panel that studied the transit system after its winter collapse. A five-member, unpaid control board would report to Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack.
“The MBTA needs a better team at the top to get the job done,” said Baker. “I absolutely believe this is a management failure.”
“We want to fix the T,” Baker said. “I do not want to privatize. I do not want to slash services. I do not want to lay off hundreds of T employees. I do not want to drive people off the T by making services unaffordable,” he said. “What I do want to do is give the people of Massachusetts and those who pay for the T and those who ride it a reliable, predictable, affordable public transportation system.”
Chris Gabrieli, the former head of the Springfield Finance Control Board, said the MBTA faces financial and management problems not unlike the ones that confronted the state’s third largest city in 2004 when the state stepped in. Springfield was insolvent and widely seen as corrupt. “Failures tend to accumulate as they have here,” said Gabrieli of the MBTA. “A control board can be an unqualified success.”
Chelsea saw similar improvements in its fortunes after a receiver took over municipal management and operations, according to Jay Ash, the first city manager after the receivership ended. Now serving as Baker’s Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Ash presented himself as the “survivor of a turnaround.” After Chelsea emerged from receivership, the city received two “All-America City” awards for outstanding civic accomplishments, according to Ash.
Some lawmakers continued to express skepticism about Baker’s plan, with many of them viewing the board as unnecessary and undermining the notion of “one MassDOT,” which is shorthand for having a single agency manage all of the state’s transportation assets.
Rep. William Straus, co-chairman of the transportation committee, questioned the need for a control board. He noted that in Springfield and Chelsea the control boards took the place of city officials while Baker’s proposed MBTA control board would just add a new layer of state bureaucracy. With Baker’s newly appointed MassDOT board of directors, Strauss said, the governor “has the tools in place to operate and directly get involved with hiring” and other issues at the MBTA.
Mayors Joseph Curtatone of Somerville and Robert Dolan of Melrose testified in support of Baker’s control board, but opposed the governor’s proposal to eliminate a state pledge to provide $500 million over several years to the MBTA, another part of his “tough love” approach to get the transit agency back on its feet. “I don’t know how you can maintain service with a half-a-billion-dollar cut,” Curtatone said.
Baker added that contracting out services under the Pacheco law takes time; a plan to contract out the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth bookstore took a year, he said.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump noted that since the Pacheco law passed in 1993, 12 of 15 privatization plans had been approved by her office. Two of the three privatization plans that were turned down were MBTA requests, Bump said. A 1996 bus shelter maintenance plan did not get a green light because the transit agency could not provide information about the number of bus shelters that would be maintained by the private contractor. A 1997 plan to contract out bus operations and maintenance in Quincy was rejected because the T could not document cost or quality savings.“When you look at the MBTA’s history of privatization and its management of contacts generally with private companies that have been reviewed by my office, you see a record of poor performance,” Bump said. Asked her view of the control plan, Bump said that she had “no opinion.”
As Baker left the hearing for a meeting with legislative leaders, he said that he had been prepared for pushback from the unions. “Anytime you propose something that is complicated – and this is certainly complicated, and it involves some significant changes – that’s going to involve a dialogue and a back and forth and that’s to be expected,” he said. “This isn’t about privatizing the MBTA; this is about making it possible for the T to deliver a service plan on a complementary basis that serves the traveling public.”