Business unusual at the T

Unsolicited proposals to privatize services pique officials’ interest

IT’S A MANTRA spoken so often these days it could be a bumper sticker.

“The MBTA is open for business,” Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator and acting general manager, said in talking about unsolicited proposals for third-party vendors to operate T services.

Shortsleeve thinks it’s so important for people to know “the MBTA is open for business” that he repeated the line at least a half dozen times Monday in a meeting with reporters and during the regular meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board.

Shortsleeve and board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt were touting proposals by Bridj, the on-demand bus service, to provide late night rider service, and a separate offer by a company called Ameridial to take over the agency’s call center handling customer service inquiries and complaints. The projects came in response to the agency’s Innovation Proposal program that welcomes unsolicited submissions from the private sector to develop a business relationship or privatize a service within the T.

The Bridj proposal offers a pilot program to run 10 buses a night for five hours each at a cost of $85 an hour to the T, for a one-year contract price of $1.55 million. The service area and fares would have to be determined but the plan would require eight to 10 passengers per trip going to similar destinations. Riders would have to have a smartphone to use the Bridj app because Charlie Cards and Charlie Tickets could not be used.

Tibbits-Nutt says the attraction for partnering with Bridj would be to use the company’s data, metrics, and algorithms to monitor who uses the service, where the demand is, and what other companies would benefit from the service in order to have them contribute to the contract.

“We have no understanding of who wants this, what type of service they need, or where the service is needed,” she said in a meeting with reporters. “Bridj has been incredibly good at getting that information…We are really just guessing at where people want go.”

But at the board meeting both chairman Joseph Aiello and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville said much of that data could be available soon as a result of rider surveys stemming from talks with late-night service advocates and Boston officials. Aiello urged Gonneville to quicken the information gathering in order to compare the results with the Bridj proposal.

James Aloisi, a member of the advocacy group Transit Matters, which is part of the discussion with the T and city, says the Bridj proposal doesn’t make sense at this point because it’s something they could already do and others are doing. He also said the data-gathering is not that difficult.

“We already have on-demand service with Uber and Lyft,” said Aloisi, a regular contributor to CommonWealth. He added, “Any pilot is going to give you data. I don’t think there’s anything unique about this pilot.”

Under the Innovation Proposal program, the MBTA is not required to send out a Request for Proposal but can go back to the original submitter and ask for a more-detailed plan. Aiello said that approach may run counter to the board’s goal of transparency as well as ensuring the agency is getting the best deal for the money. The Bridj and Ameridial call center proposals are two of the first submissions the board has considered.

“These are the first things we’re getting and we don’t quite know how to deal with them,” said Aiello in cautioning fellow board members to go slow. “If we don’t put this up competitively, we’re never going to know if this is the best deal for us.”

Aloisi said there are other service providers such as Paul Revere Bus Company, which already runs service for the T in Winthrop, as well as Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies, that may want to bid on such a proposal.

“If I had an unsolicited proposal from Bridj, I’d be grateful to have it to get the benefit of a competitive procurement,” said Aloisi. “There are other companies who play in this sandbox. If we’re going to outsource, let’s get the most robust competition possible. The whole point of unsolicited proposals is to spark conversation.”

The Ameridial proposal would take over the T’s call center and, according to Shortsleeve, do it at one-fifth the cost or less. The MBTA’s call center currently employs 28 workers, including four managers and four supervisors. All employees except the director are union workers.

According to the proposal, which Shortsleeve said would be open to a multitude of potential vendors beyond Ameridial, the contract would be for approximately $800,000, plus another $1 million for a six-person MBTA management and complaint resolution center. That would be a 70 percent savings over the $3.6 million the agency currently spends on operating its call center.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Tibbits-Nutt dismissed concerns over the potential for confusion in having separate call centers for commuter rail operator Keolis; The Ride, which is already outsourced; and the T. She said outsourcing the service would allow the MBTA to focus on its prime mission, moving people.

“People don’t really know what the best way to communicate with us is now,” she said. “We have a lot of ways to take in communication; we are not good at communicating back. We are a transit agency, we are not a communications agency. We already have a disconnected system.”