After visit to derailment site, Baker changes course on MBTA

Calls for accelerated repairs and $50M in new funding

ONE NIGHT LAST week, Gov. Charlie Baker saw for himself the damage dealt to the Red Line’s signal system when a train went off the rails at the JFK/UMass Station and smashed into three sheds containing electrical equipment along the tracks.

Baker said the visit, which he recalls happened at around 9 p.m. last Thursday, helped convince him that the MBTA should be more aggressive about shutting down service on nights and weekends so that construction crews can access the system to make faster repairs.

The additional service closure is one piece of a plan the governor unveiled Tuesday to more rapidly upgrade the MBTA. The plan includes a planned infusion of $50 million in surplus state revenues that would finance a “flex force” that could work on both the capital and operational side of the T, a reconfiguration of the state’s procurement laws, and negotiations with contractors to speed up project delivery.

After a Red Line train smashed-up an extensive array of signal equipment on June 11, leading to prolonged commuting headaches, political and business leaders called on the governor to move more quickly in his effort to repair and modernize the T.

Baker’s visit to the JFK/UMass Station wasn’t listed on his schedule, but he said it helped him decide that the service disruptions caused by temporary closures were a necessary trade-off to speed up repairs.

“I wanted to see for myself up-front what had actually happened, and there were three things that I walked away thinking. The first was this is an unbelievably complicated piece of really old technology,” Baker told reporters at a press conference in a renovated Orange Line garage Tuesday morning.

The governor said he also noted how close the signal bungalows – which he referred to as “walk-in closets” – were to the track, and his impression that fixing the signals while keeping the service in regular operation would present a big challenge.

“I came out of that and I looked at these guys, and I said, ‘There must be a way – if we’re willing to take some chances and come up with some strategies – to create more track time for you guys to do this work faster,’” Baker said.

For a governor who has taken heat for not riding the T himself, the private visit to a Red Line subway stop showed how hands-on observations can lead to broader policy changes. But the visit didn’t prompt the Swampscott Republican to alter his opposition to additional T revenues in the form of new taxes. The governor said at the press conference that the T’s biggest deficiency is the time needed to make repairs.

“We want them to be as aggressive as they can be about finding track time for construction, recognizing and understanding that it’s going to be then on them and us to figure out a way to make sure that whatever those disruptions are ones that people are A.) notified in advance about, and B.) have alternatives,” Baker said.  “I’ve said for a long time and I continue to believe this to be true that the biggest problem the T has is finding the time to do the work.”

That outlook is consistent with the Baker administration canceling a Patrick administration program to run subways and select buses beyond the usual close of service on weekends. One big mark against the so-called late night service was that it ate into valuable time needed to make repairs to the system. The T now runs some late-night and early morning buses, which leaves the tracks clear for maintenance work.

The MBTA has forecast that returning Red Line service to normal will take all summer, and the new plan doesn’t change that timeline. The Baker administration plan also calls for more frequent inspections to identify maintenance needs before they become a problem.

Although the governor’s plan also calls for $50 million in surplus state revenue to be poured into the T, Baker asserted that the additional money is not an acknowledgement that the T needs more revenue. The T’s overall budget, which is heavily dependent on state funding, is about $2 billion.

The chorus of officials and advocates calling for more revenue has grown more insistent since the 50-year-old Red Line train disrupted commutes throughout the metro area. On Sunday, former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi urged the governor to step up on T revenues, specifically in regard to the operating budget that covers the cost of running the T system and providing routine maintenance. The T currently diverts most of the $187 million annually appropriated for it by the Legislature into longer-term capital spending. But Aloisi said the governor’s comments on Tuesday suggest he now recognizes the need for more operating funds at the T.

“That’s as close to being an acknowledgment without the word acknowledgment coming out of his mouth,” Aloisi said of the governor’s comments on Tuesday.

On Monday, Joe Malone, a Republican who was state treasurer and a gubernatorial candidate in 1998, told Boston Public Radio co-host Jim Braude, with some prodding, that Baker now has an opportunity to seek more revenue for the T.

“I think Baker’s in a position where he can put together a coalition and say we want to move forward to restore the T,” Malone said. In response to a prompting question from Braude, he said, “Yeah, raising revenue.”

Later in the program, Attorney General Maura Healey, who many believe might challenge Baker if he runs for re-election, pushed for more revenue and changes to the transportation system as a whole.

“The state of our transportation infrastructure is pathetic. It’s terrible,” said Healey. “We need to act with an urgency that we’ve never acted with before to fix this.”

Healey was agnostic about where the revenue should come from and said she is opposed to the roughly 6 percent fare hikes that kick in on Monday.

“We need more revenue. I think it was wrong to raise rates – to raise fares,” Healey said. “For people who are already suffering from lousy service on the commuter rail or the T or the bus, the last thing they should be handed is a fare hike. It just doesn’t seem fair to me”

The governor announced his shift in approach to the T while standing in front of one of the 152 forthcoming Orange Line cars that will eventually completely replace the three-decade-old fleet. A complete replacement of the Red Line will follow. The press conference was held before Baker’s planned Tuesday flight for an official visit to London.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak has previously highlighted the need for additional workers for the agency to meet its capital improvement goals. On Tuesday, he couldn’t say how many people would be hired with the anticipated $50 million, which would finance the employment of flaggers, bus drivers, engineers, and others.

Other planned changes to speed up repairs on the T will be proposed in a bill the governor plans to file in the next few weeks that would finance improvements to the transportation system. The governor said he is not seeking any changes to the so-called Pacheco law, but the T will look for more flexibility in how it structures its construction procurements.

“We have aggressively identified every provision in statute that holds the T back from using the best project delivery and procurement practices in use anywhere in the country, and we will be asking the Legislature to change those outdated statutory provisions,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

It’s unclear whether the surplus spending would be included in the end-of-fiscal-year spending bill or some other piece of legislation. Revenues have exceeded expectations in fiscal 2019, which should leave lawmakers a pot of money to deal with.

The procurement flexibility the Baker administration will seek includes something described as “Design/Build/Finance/Operate/Maintain” which would contract out all aspects of a project; greater use of design/build procurements; a procurement that enables the T to consider both cost and schedule; and on-call contractors for projects up to $500,000.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Late Tuesday afternoon, House Speaker Robert DeLeo put out a statement indicating the $50 million in surplus funds was insufficient to meet the needs of the T, and reiterated that the House would take up a revenue bill.

“The infrastructure and operational needs of the MBTA go well beyond a one-time revenue solution. Fixing the MBTA requires a long-term strategic plan as well as the long-term dedicated annual revenue to implement it. Nothing short of a modern, reliable and safe transit system is what MBTA commuters deserve, and it is what the House demands,” DeLeo said. “This fall the House plans to debate the revenue options to fund statewide transportation investments, including funding a long term strategic investment plan for the MBTA. Pending that, we look forward to working with the Governor to enact a supplemental budget to provide a more immediate infusion of funds, but only in the context of the larger debate the long term funding of a strategic investment plan for the MBTA.”