Problems surface with T’s collision-avoidance contract

Problems surface with T’s collision-avoidance contract

Board chair calls quality assurance issues ‘really disturbing’

THE PRIVATE CONTRACTOR installing a $459 million system to prevent commuter rail train collisions came under heavy fire on Monday for failing to detect problems with its work that were spotted after-the-fact by consultants working for the MBTA.

In a presentation to the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, project manager Karen Antion was mostly upbeat, talking about how the Italian contractor Ansaldo STS was meeting or beating most of its construction targets for installing fiber optic cable and poles and antenna. The project timetable calls for installation of all hardware by the end of next year and an operational system by Dec. 31, 2020.

Antion then put up a one-page slide that suggested Ansaldo was having some quality assurance issues, including inadequate separation between new and existing fiber optic cables; cables that were mounted too low, in trees, or against obstructions; and “excessive bends in the new cable.”

Antion said the MBTA has raised its quality assurance concerns with Ansaldo and met with Ansaldo leadership on the matter. She said Ansaldo is expected to file a mitigation plan with the MBTA by Friday, and assured the control board that the remedies would not require additional shutdowns of commuter rail service or require more expenditures by the T.

Despite what appeared to be a fairly innocuous update by Antion, several members of the control board reacted angrily to the quality assurance problems.  It appeared members of the control board were already aware of problems with the project, which is required under federal law and comes with fines of as much as $105,000 a day if not completed on time.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, called the quality assurance news “really disturbing” and asked Antion what the T’s options for recourse are under the contract. “This simply sounds like a complete failure of their quality assurance system,” Aiello said of Ansaldo.

Brian Lang, a board member and union leader, said he was “sick and tired” of hearing about these types of problems with private contractors. “This is the untold story about contractors running amok,” he said.

After MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez said he met with Ansaldo officials last week to get a handle on the problems, Lang suggested the T might want to start keeping score of how much time and resources T staff spend in fixing “screw-ups” by private contractors.

Aiello chimed in at that point, saying “we’ve seen disappointing performance on a wide variety of contracts.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack didn’t seem overly alarmed. She said the presentation indicated the project was being well-managed, any problems were being addressed, and delays are unlikely. She noted Antion had also said the problems can be corrected without closing down commuter rail lines on weekends, as has been done with work so far.

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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.

Antion, a consultant, is being paid $260,000 to oversee the project. News stories about her appointment in June noted she helped supervise a similar project in California that was plagued by delays and reports of infighting.

The strong comments from Aiello and Lang came as the Fiscal and Management Control Board is considering privatizing three of the T’s bus maintenance garages. The union representing the existing bus mechanics has pushed back against the privatization initiative, and Lang is reportedly trying to help T and union officials find some common ground.

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    Can’t wait for the new Chinese redline cars. Warrenty avoidance