Pollack hedging on next commuter rail contract

Unclear whether she will follow through on 2016 pledge

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY Stephanie Pollack appears to be hedging a bit on whether the MBTA will have a new commuter rail contract in place by her self-imposed deadline of July 2022.

Pollack made her original pledge in 2016, telling the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee that the “MBTA does not intend for its commuter rail contract to extend beyond its remaining term, whether the next contract is with Keolis or a different provider.”

The eight-year contract with Keolis Commuter Services runs through the end of June 2022, but it allows for two, two-year extensions. Pollack said in 2016 that the contract would not be extended.

But now Gov. Charlie Baker’s transportation secretary seems to be backing off that position a bit. She issued a statement this week saying “the MBTA has begun taking internal steps in regard to the structure of the new commuter rail contract and will initiate a re-procurement before the current contract expires. The decision not to automatically extend the current 8-year contract is not a reflection of Keolis’s performance; indeed, I fully expect that Keolis would compete as part of the re-procurement.”

Parsing her words, she seemed to be saying a re-procurement will be initiated – but not necessarily completed – before the current contract expires in July 2022. Her statement also refers to the decision to not automatically extend the eight-year contract, which seems to leave open the door to extending it – just not automatically.

Asked for clarification on whether a new contract would be in place by July 2022, a spokeswoman for Pollack said the secretary would stick with her statement as is.

The issue of the next commuter rail contract first surfaced in the fall of 2016, when Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, sent a letter to Pollack pressing her not to extend the current contract with Keolis beyond its initial eight-year term. He said contract extensions are viewed in the industry as a sign of favoritism toward the incumbent. He said he wanted more competition for the next contract, and one way to make that happen is to not grant an extension to the incumbent.

“Contract extensions send the wrong signal worldwide,” he said.

Straus also said he wanted to see an MBTA takeover of commuter rail explored as part of any new contract negotiations.

Straus said Pollack discussed the contract issue with him in person and then put her stance in writing in a November 10, 2016, letter.

When Pollack’s stance surfaced publicly, it was widely interpreted as a slap at Keolis, which was experiencing all sorts of problems running the commuter rail system at the time, including large numbers of trip cancellations and heavy financial penalties for failing to have enough locomotives and passenger coaches available. The MBTA took flak for forgiving some of the fines. Pollack rushed to emphasize that her decision about not extending the contract was not a rebuke of Keolis; she said she fully expected Keolis to bid on the new contract.

Straus said it’s been his understanding since his discussions with Pollack in 2016 that a new commuter rail contract would be in place as of July 2022.

After hearing Pollack’s statement this week, Straus said it seemed to introduce a bit of uncertainty. “Use of the word ‘automatically’ certainly creates a question mark,” he said, adding that he would not be happy if Keolis were granted an extension.

It’s also not entirely clear that the decision about the next commuter rail contract is Pollack’s to make. The last contract was authorized by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board. The Legislature subsequently authorized the creation of the Fiscal and Management Control Board to oversee the T. The control board’s five-year mandate is scheduled to expire next year, but there is growing support for creating a new T oversight board.

One source at the MBTA who is familiar with the internal timetable for a new commuter rail contract said Pollack needs to walk back her earlier statement. Even though July 2022 is more than three years away, insiders say the next commuter rail contract is likely to take much longer to negotiate than the last, which took two years to bring to fruition and another six months to allow for the transition to a new operator.

The next contracting process is expected to be far more complex than the last. For starters, the T is currently working on a commuter rail vision study, which will determine what level of service the T will provide in the future. Many advocates are pressing the T to adopt a regional rail vision that would operate the commuter rail system with far more frequent service. There are also major questions to be answered about whether the system should be electrified and whether new locomotives should be purchased. The rail vision study isn’t expected to be fully completed until the end of this year.

In addition to a number of service-oriented questions, many expect the next contract will last longer (maybe as long as 20 years), prod the contractor to invest its own capital in the system, and require a longer transition period between operators. T officials are hoping there will be more bidders than the two that competed last time, which could add time and complexity to the contracting process.

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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.

The performance of Keolis, after a very shaky start, seems to be improving. Locomotive and coach availability levels are at all-time highs. On-time performance was 89 percent the last three years and is averaging 91 percent so far this year, even as Keolis is providing 10,000 more train trips this year than it did in 2014.

Keolis officials say they will bid on the next contract whenever it is released.  “While there is much more work to do, we are pleased to see progress on a variety of levels, ranging from safety and workforce training to service reliability and fleet management,” said David Scorey, the CEO and general manager of Keolis in Boston, in a statement. “We are also pleased that we are positively advancing the organization itself – digitizing outdated processes, deploying technologies for better operational analysis, and investing in our workforce. I can’t emphasize enough that there is more work to do, but we are seeing progress following significant investments by the MBTA and Keolis.”