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.
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.”
“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.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.”