Pollack says dissolving T was considered

Baker panel decided on control board instead

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

SWEEPING ASIDE THE AGENCY that oversees metro Boston’s transit system and reassembling the bureaucracy was a path considered and rejected by a gubernatorial advisory panel, though it is not unreasonable, the state’s transportation chief said Tuesday.

“We don’t have a Turnpike Authority anymore. It’s gone. It is not silly to say sometimes agencies and authorities are so deeply troubled that the only way to fix them is to dissolve them,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said at a Suffolk University panel discussion. “That is not what the panel found about the T. We are actually betting on the fact that with this intervention we can get the T back on track.”

Pollack told reporters that after speaking with her predecessors she recommended against dissolving the agency, believing it would be an intensive task and would have “complicated” the priority of righting the system of trains, buses, and other transit infrastructure.

Instead, the Baker administration is seeking a fiscal and management control board to take over control of the T. The five-person board, which would report to Pollack, would have the power to reject arbitrated union contracts, establish performance metrics, and change fares.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s transportation reform bill (H 3347) is scheduled for a hearing before the Transportation Committee next Monday.

Seeking to split up the positions of rail and transit administrator and MBTA general manager – most recently held jointly by Beverly Scott – Pollack said she wants the governor to have the authority to name an MBTA administrator, creating a direct chain of command.

“Go ask Governor Patrick about trying to fire Dan Grabauskas with a board that he appointed, how smoothly that went,” Pollack said, referring to a drawn-out ouster in 2009. Frank DePaola is now the interim MBTA general manager.

Former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, who appeared with Pollack on the panel, disagreed with removing a legislative cap on fare increases and the establishment of a control board, saying highway funding should be reduced to pay for transit.

“A control board from my way of thinking is frankly sending the wrong message and is a way to reduce accountability,” said Aloisi.

Alluding to headwear historically worn by accountants, Aloisi said, “When I think control board, I think green eyeshade. When I think green eyeshade it worries me.”

Aloisi commended Pollack for her “well-intentioned idea” of considering an income-based tiered-fare system, but he said wealthier travelers would opt for private carriers, such as Bridj, a private transit company already in operation in the Boston area, if fares were comparable.

“When I was waiting for the Silver Line 5 bus two weeks ago to take me to the Red Line, a bunch of guys dressed like me got on Bridj because they could afford it, and I was waiting for a Silver Line bus that was late, because I chose to,” Aloisi said. He said, “If the T becomes the public transportation system only for the people who take it by necessity, it’s doomed.”

According to Bridj, its fares cost $3 to $5 per ride, which compares to bus fares of $1.60, plus a free transfer, on the MBTA.

A former transportation analyst at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center, Pollack said the MBTA’s contract with Keolis Commuter Services, the French-owned company that runs the commuter rail, provides no incentives for conductors to collect the fares and suggested she could seek to rework the agreement. Those fare revenues help fund the MBTA.

The MBTA, which collapsed after extraordinary cold temperatures and snowfall this winter, began a late-night service a year ago, and Pollack said she has no room to contract out that service because of a requirement known as the Pacheco law, which requires government to prove privatization will result in cost savings and no drop in service.

The House budget suspends the Pacheco law’s requirements at the MBTA for five years, a move that is sure to encounter resistance in the Senate, where Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) and others are proponents of the law. The MBTA scaled back its late night service in April.

Advocates for more MBTA funding, such as Aloisi, point to the framework legislative leaders established as part of the 2013 tax law. That law – after portions were repealed by lawmakers and then voters – hiked the gas tax by 3 cents per gallon and tobacco taxes by much more and legislative leaders around the time said the state would devote increasing amounts of state dollars toward the MBTA.

Transportation for Massachusetts Director Kristina Egan said the 2013 law “promises more money” for the T, which is needed, and Aloisi worried that the governor’s reform plan would require passengers to bridge deficits with escalating fares.

The 2013 framework, arranged by Speaker Robert DeLeo and former Senate President Therese Murray, laid out commitments for future state funding on the T, saying it would rise to $260 million in fiscal 2017.

“If in fiscal ’17 it proves to be not possible to balance the T’s budget with the resources that are available, would you rather go to the Legislature with the results of a budget that has been scrubbed by a fiscal management control board and ask for appropriations for additional contract assistance,” Pollack asked, noting that the Baker administration has backed the full $187 million needed by the T for fiscal 2016. “Or would you rather rely on a pro forma that was developed in a small room with a small group of people three or four years earlier that doesn’t even predict the ’16 operating deficit correctly?”

Pollack said the 2013 law anticipated transfers from the state’s general fund to the MBTA, but the “dirty little secret” is all that MBTA assistance has been drawn from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, sapping the state’s capital dollars for transportation projects.

“We’re supposed to be bonding against that money to buy new Red and Orange Line cars and pay the state’s share of the Green Line,” Pollack said. “But we’re taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Commonwealth Transportation Fund for those operating deficits because quite frankly the Legislature understands that it doesn’t make any sense to take money from the general fund to give to an independent authority that it has no control over.”

Questioning why anyone would be “afraid” of a fiscal and management control board, Pollack said unlike state transportation board charged with overseeing the T the new control board would have the ability to reject contracts worked out in binding arbitration – a power every city council has, according to Pollack.

“This is the single most important thing that can happen to fix the T,” said Greg Sullivan, the state’s former inspector general and the Pioneer Institute’s research director. Sullivan praised the negotiation work of Scott, the former general manager, but said Scott had been overruled by an arbitrator and there was no backstop to reject that arbitrator’s ruling.