Baker: T in early stages of turnaround

Warns process will take years and tons of work

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday said the MBTA is just beginning the second phase of a three-step turnaround, a process that could take years to complete.

At a State House press conference, Baker read a lengthy statement that summarized the many problems uncovered at the T over the last year and his administration’s efforts to deal with them. The statement broke little new ground, but it was nevertheless remarkable for the way the governor delved into the nitty gritty of a troubled transit agency that his predecessors rarely focused on in any great detail.

Baker, who led efforts to rescue Harvard Pilgrim from bankrupcty in 1999, said turnarounds involve three steps: putting out immediate fires, “creating positive movement where there is none,” and then creating “real momentum” building on the work done during steps one and two. Baker said the T is at the beginning of the second step, creating positive movement.

“Climbing out of this mess will take time and tons of work. On that we can all agree,” said Baker. “But it will also take a change in attitude at every level throughout the T. On almost every benchmark imaginable, the T underperforms against its peers, peers that have the same unions and, in many cases, very similar tasks and equipment.”

Baker said he didn’t care if a service at the T is provided publicly or privately, adding that the state should actively seek out private partners — “even let them make unsolicited proposals” — to handle T operations. “What I care about is performance, productivity, and ensuring the money riders, taxpayers, and cities and towns pay in to the system is well managed. The old way of doing things at the T is no longer viable or sensible.”

Baker said the T isn’t underfunded, but has been “poorly led and horribly managed.” He described an agency where employees push massive amounts of paper around and engage in often wasteful practices, including the installation of sunroofs on two of the armored trucks used by the T to transport money. He said new administrators recently saved $500,000 a year by shutting off hundreds of wireless devices that were purchased but never used.

He also said many of the T’s service problems arise because of equipment that is older than he is (59) and in some cases older than his father (86). Yet he said the T year after year lacks the staffing capacity to spend all the money it is authorized to spend on capital improvements. Even this year, the T is expected to spend just three-quarters of the more than $1 billion authorized for capital improvements.

Gov. Charlie Baker address reporters at State House, joined by, from left, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, T Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve, and T Chief Operating Office Jeff Gonneville.

Gov. Charlie Baker address reporters at State House, joined by, from left, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, T Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve, and T Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Gonneville.

The governor said the T’s pension system is in a financial freefall, faced with a $1 billion shortfall and investments showing lackluster growth. In 2015, Baker said, the system paid out $187 million in retiree benefits and took in only $98 million in contributions from the T and its employees. He said eligible employees pay $46,000 into the pension fund and take out $1.65 million in pension and healthcare benefits. Under recent reforms, he said, new employees will contribute $67,000 and take out $1.49 million in benefits.

“We believe the T’s pension system cannot survive as a standalone entity,” Baker said, pledging to file legislation next year to transfer management of the system’s assets to the state pension system.

Baker made the case that the T is starting to create some positive forward movement. He credited a new management team led by Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve and the five members of the Fiscal Management and Control Board, who he described as the “hardest working volunteers in state government.”

 

Yet much of the evidence for the positive movement forward is pretty small potatoes. Slides accompanying the governor’s presentation indicated transportation operator absences were down 23 percent, overtime expenses were reduced 32 percent, and dropped weekday bus trips had fallen 38 percent.

In each case, however, the big drops reflected statistical anomalies. For example, the governor’s slides showed unscheduled absences by transportation operators had fallen from 12.72 percent to 9.79 percent, or a decline of 23 percent. The smaller number of 9.79 percent came during the first six months of this year, while the larger number came during fiscal 2015, which ran from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015, a period during which the T and the region were paralyzed by historic snowfalls.

In fiscal 2014, a more normal year weather-wise, absenteeism by transportation operators was 10.9 percent. Compared to fiscal 2014, unscheduled absences during the first six months of this year were down only 10 percent.

Similarly, the average number of dropped weekday bus trips fell from 155 in fiscal 2015 to 96 in the first six months of this year. That sounds great, but, again, fiscal 2015 includes the winter when the T ground to a halt. The numbers on dropped trips are also tiny; the T operates 7,103 weekday bus trips, so 155 dropped trips represents just 2.2 percent of the total.

The Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents the bulk of the T’s unionized workforce, released a statement criticizing the authority’s management for focusing exclusively on privatization to deal with the agency’s problems. “Privatization is not a magic wand. There is no magic wand to cure the lack of investment of the past 20-plus years. And privatization certainly does not guarantee cost savings or improved service for riders,” the statement said, adding that the union is still waiting for a response to a proposal that officials say would save the T $24 million over the next four years.

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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.

Baker said the T is on the right track, although he cautioned that the situation is much worse than he thought and would take a long time to fully address. He told reporters that people complain to him all the time that the weekly meetings of the Fiscal Management and Control Board are full of news about what’s wrong at the agency. But he made no apologies for the diet of bad news.

“Part of the reason we’re in the place we’re in is for years there was no transparency around what was going on at the T,” Baker said. “People used a variety of games and gimmicks to make up for the fact that structural reforms had not happened. The Fiscal Management and Control Board is doing things that should have been done years ago.”