T notes: Baker loves coming attractions

Agency adopts policy on paying employees with capital funds

AS HE SEEKS REELECTION, one of Gov. Charlie Baker’s biggest concerns is that voters will lose patience with his efforts to turn around the MBTA. So whenever an opportunity presents itself, the governor and T officials like to offer riders previews of coming attractions.

Last week it was the Green Line of the future. On Monday, it was a presentation to the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on capital spending, which is ramping up to pay for projects that are expected to transform the transit agency. And on Tuesday, the administration is offering up a photo opportunity of Baker, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez taking a tour of the first new Orange Line cars at a T facility in Medford. (Baker and Pollack were at the same facility in March last year to tour a mockup of the Orange Line cars.)

Things are definitely happening at the T; it’s just hard for daily riders to notice much of a difference yet with the creaky infrastructure in place.

Ramirez and other T officials unveiled a draft capital investment plan on Monday that is expected to pump nearly $8 billion over the next five years into projects to improve reliability, modernize operations, and extend the Green Line into Somerville and Medford. The big-ticket items include $1.2 billion for new vehicles, $1.6 billion for Red and Orange Line improvements, and $1.2 billion for the Green Line extension.

Of the total MBTA capital expenditures over the next five years, 46 percent of the funding is coming from the federal government, 23 percent from MBTA bonds, 14 percent from the state, 11 percent from cash set aside by the T, and the rest from federal loans and cash contributions from Somerville and Cambridge.

MBTA officials said the transit agency is stepping up investment in the system dramatically. For example, the T awarded $110 million in capital program contracts in fiscal 2016 and is expected to issue contracts worth nearly $2.2 billion this fiscal year. And most of the capital projects are not years away; 70 percent of the fiscal 2019 projected expenditures of $1.2 billion are for projects already under way.

Brian Shortsleeve, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board and the T’s former general manager, said another big improvement is that new software is now allowing T officials to track the progress of capital projects in real time. Previously, he said, project updates were issued maybe once a year, so it often took T officials longer to identify emerging problems.

T adopts capital expense policy

With the House and Senate split on whether the MBTA should be able to use capital funds to pay employees, the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday adopted new policies to assuage concerns about the practice.

The Legislature approved a law in 2015 that barred the T from paying employees with capital funds – either federal money or bond funds. The Legislature passed the law because the T had put hundreds of employees on the capital budget to artificially hold down the size of its operating budget.

After passage of the law, the T shifted two groups of employees over to the operating budget. But the agency now wants to keep paying about 200 employees with capital funds. The House in its budget rejected the T’s request, but gave the agency an additional $27 million in operating funds to pay the workers’ salaries. The Senate, however, gave a green light to the practice, as long as the T adopted internal policies to prevent abuses.

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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.

The T adopted a set of new policies on Monday and indicated its compliance with those policies would be the focus of an annual audit.

Samantha Silverberg, the T’s senior director of capital planning who used to work at the White House office of management and budget, said the T’s use of capital funds to pay employees working exclusively on capital projects is commonplace among transit agencies and accepted by the Federal Transit Administration.

Luis Ramirez, the general manager of the T, said the Legislature outlawed using capital funds to pay employees several years ago when the T abused the practice. “It looks like we may have gone too far in the other direction,” Ramirez said. “I think we’re in the right place now.”