T notes: Control board wants to streamline meetings

T notes: Control board wants to streamline meetings

Mattapan Line struggling; bus maintenance decision due soon

AT ITS 188th MEETING on Monday, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board began exploring ways to streamline meetings and reduce time demands on the transit authority’s staff.

The control board meeting on Monday lasted 2.5 hours with a fairly short agenda, but it’s not uncommon for meetings to run four to six hours. Top management at the T is typically present for the entire meeting and countless staff hours are taken up preparing presentations for the board.

MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez said he is concerned about the staff time devoted to the meetings and several board members said they shared that concern.

Board member Brian Lang said he thought some staff presentations focused on details that were of little importance to board members. Brian Shortsleeve, another board member, said the focus should be on big-picture issues, such as the T’s budget and the transit agency’s efforts to increase capital expenditures at the T from the current level of $800 to $900 million a year to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion a year.

Some proposed solutions were very specific. Board member Steve Poftak suggested time could be saved by limiting the number of slides during presentations to five. Ramirez suggested the board hear only three presentations per meeting.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has previously defended the lengthy meetings. Asked in April about whether the commitment of staff resources was worth it, Pollack said: “What is so wonderful about the control board and its meetings on Mondays is that we are investing that much time and effort in having the conversations that are happening. The meetings are the agency and its stakeholders working through complicated issues that have been left unresolved, in some cases for decades, because we’ve finally gotten to the point where we realize that we have to. Yes, it takes tons and tons of staff time and effort to gather the data and figure out how to present the data and queue up the options and anticipate the questions. But as I go through that process every week, I just keep thinking to myself isn’t it a wonderful world where people are so concerned about making the T work that they’re willing to put in that level of effort.”

Pollack on Monday suggested board meetings could be streamlined by having some issues presented to the board in memos rather than live presentations.

Under state law, the control board is required to meet three times a month, or 36 times a year.

Mattapan Line struggling

The Mattapan Line, a 1940s-era trolley service that runs between Mattapan and Ashmont Station in Dorchester, appears to be sputtering badly in the cold.

T officials said the Mattapan service, already shorthanded because of a collision between two trolleys on December 29, lost three more trolleys on Monday due to unspecified issues. It was unclear how long the trolleys would be disabled; no mention was made of any Mattapan service disruption on the T’s website.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that 18 people were injured on December 29 when one trolley crashed into the back of another heading inbound to Ashmont between the Cedar Grove and Butler stations. Gonneville said the driver of the trolley that crashed into the other said he was distracted by a disabled trolley on the outbound track.

Gonneville said the T plans to take the two trolleys involved in the crash and two others that have been disabled for some time and raid parts from all four to get two of the four trolleys back in service.

The Mattapan Line requires five trolleys to provide its regular service, but Gonneville said only four were available at the start of operations on Monday. He said three of them went down on Monday, apparently leaving the line with only one operating vehicle.

The Mattapan Line has become a political hot potato for the T. Politicians in the area love the historic trolleys, but the vehicles are way, way beyond their useful mechanical lives. Parts often have to be raided from other disabled trolleys, acquired from museums, or built from scratch to keep the vehicles in service.

The T is currently conducting a study to examine long-term options for Mattapan service and the transit authority is preparing to spend several million dollars to give the vehicles an overhaul to extend their life for a few more years until a long-term decision about their future is made.

Gonneville, in describing the heroic efforts of T workers during the recent winter storm and extreme cold, singled out repair technicians at the trolley facility in Mattapan. The facility consists of two walls and a roof with the ends of the facility open to the elements. Gonneville said repair workers during the recent cold snap would work for 45 minutes, go inside a nearby office to warm up, and then return to do some more work.

“They’re doing fairly amazing work in hell-on-earth conditions,” he said.

Bus maintenance privatization decision due soon

The politically sensitive issue of whether to privatize bus maintenance work at three garages appears to be coming to a head.

Brian Lang, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, asked T officials on Monday when they expected to make a recommendation on what to do with the three garages. T officials have indicated they want to privatize the three garages or secure major concessions from the union. The union representing workers at the garages has indicated a willingness to negotiate, but it has also mounted a major campaign, backed by many of the state’s Democratic politicians, opposing outsourcing.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told Lang that meetings between T officials and the union representing the bus maintenance workers have been very productive, and she was waiting to hold one more meeting this week before scheduling a report to the board.

A union official said recent meetings have been productive, but indicated progress has been elusive.

Czar for Orange-Red Line work?

MBTA officials are thinking about hiring a “czar” to oversee the $1.7 billion procurement of vehicles and equipment needed to dramatically improve service on the Orange and Red Lines.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, raised concerns about different T officials being in charge of different aspects of the project, which involves the purchase of new Red and Orange Line cars, the construction of new repair and test facilities, and the purchase and installation of new power and signals equipment. He said the goal is to dramatically improve service, and suggested the best way to do that is to put one person in charge.

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.

Jeffrey Gonneville, deputy general manager of the T, said he and General Manager Luis Ramirez have been discussing the possibility of hiring a czar to oversee the Red and Orange Line work.

Four of the new Orange Line cars have already arrived at the T for testing and should start going into service in October or November.  Gonneville said he can’t wait for the new cars to arrive. “They have that new train smell, which is just amazing,” he said.