T board cautious on privatization

‘If we’re going to do it, we need to do it right’

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD on Wednesday cautiously began exploring the privatization of some of the agency’s non-core services, prompting a forceful response from union officials who emphasized the dramatic impact these efforts could have on long-time T employees and their families.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, said a request for information from private companies yielded 13 responses suggesting ways the agency could farm work out to private firms and in the process reduce costs, improve customer service, and provide more flexibility. Shortsleeve identified several functions that could be privatized, including fare collection and cash handling, marketing and retail services, and oversight of employee leaves. He said the T could also streamline its $7 million in telecom contracts and hire civilians to handle the dispatch system for transit police, freeing up cops to do police work.

Shortsleeve estimated 250 T employees currently work in these areas, with 165 in fare collection and money handling operations. He said many of the employees displaced through privatization could be transferred to the T’s core operations, including driving buses or subways, doing electrical work on the transit system, or overseeing the private contracts.

But several members of the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board urged Shortsleeve to move cautiously.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, said he worried the agency lacked the internal capacity to handle all these privatization initiatives at the same time. He said outside consultants may be needed to negotiate contracts in a way that protects the T’s interests. “We have to get these contracts right,” Aiello said.

Steven Poftak, another board member, said the MBTA has had difficulty in the past overseeing private contractors. He said he wanted T officials to oversee any privatization contracts, and Aiello said T workers may need additional training to perform that task.

Board member Brian Lang wanted to know how much fare revenue is currently being lost because fare machines are not working properly. He said the information would be helpful in determining whether a private contractor would improve revenue collection. “This is a big step and, if we’re going to do it, we need to do it right,” Lang said.

Shortsleeve said his staff is having difficult determining the downtime of fare machines, largely because they are dealing with two software platforms that don’t communicate. “I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to get that information,” he said.

Gov. Charlie Baker in this year’s budget won a three-year reprieve for T officials from the so-called Pacheco law, which regulates how state agencies can privatize state services. “We want to fix the T,” Baker said at a legislative hearing on his proposal. “I do not want to privatize the T. I do not want to slash services. I do not want to lay off hundreds of employees.”

Union officials testified on the privatization efforts, but they were very measured in their comments. Instead of attacking the governor or T officials, as they have in the past, the union officials made the case that the privatization initiatives would have a major impact on the lives of long-time T employees and their families.

James O’Brien, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents 77 of the 165 people currently working in the T’s money room or in automated fare collection services, urged officials to make sure any savings promised by private companies are real.  He also said he believed the work is best handled by public employees who can be held accountable for their work.

But his primary message was that privatization efforts will disrupt the lives of T employees. “Behind every employee is a family, a home, and a story,” he said.

Antrynette Hobbs, an 18-year T employee who currently works in the money room, said she likes her job and would probably have to go back to driving buses if her work was privatized. “I wanted to put a face to a job for you,” she told the T oversight board.

Meet the Author

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.

Samantha Mills, a technician who works in automated fare collection, said she has no “fallback rights” to a different job at the T if her existing job is privatized. “By you taking me out of this job, you’re going to impact my life,” she said.

Louis Antonellis, president of IBEW Local 103, said he represents 50 electricians who work in automated fare collection. He said they undergo drug tests and criminal background checks and must be licensed. He said 31 percent of them are minorities. “That’s not something you’ll get with privatization,” he said.