Lawmakers Push MBTA Task Force For Specifics On Report

Gov. Charlie Baker's MBTA task force didn't have time to "drill down" into the authority's relationship with its new commuter rail system operator but did learn that the T and Keolis do not have a strong relationship, according to one task force member.

At a Transportation Committee hearing, lawmakers pressed task force members for data behind their conclusions about high absenteeism among T employees, failure to spend capital funds and the proposal to create a temporary MBTA control board.

After the hearing, legislators said they still had questions about the task force's report, which Baker drew on as a blueprint in filing legislation to overhaul the MBTA. They expect a separate hearing on the legislation soon, lawmakers said.

Lawmakers also asked about the task force's lack of a strong focus on the commuter rail system, which experienced weeks of delays and cancellations this winter.

Task force member Joe Sullivan, the mayor of Braintree, said the relationship between the MBTA and Keolis, its new commuter rail operator, was "not a strong one." Keolis started an eight-year contract in July.

"It wasn't a partnership if you will," Sullivan, adding that there has been some improvement in the last month. Under legislation filed by Baker, the control board would be empowered to review and amend the contract between Keolis and the MBTA.

Sullivan said the task force was not able to look into whether absenteeism among commuter rail employees was a factor in the poor service commuters experienced during the winter.

Unionized MBTA employees who would be affected by some of the management reforms recommended by Baker packed the hearing room for Monday's hearing, occasionally cheering and clapping when some legislators asked questions and when task force members pointed to management problems affecting the MBTA.

James O'Brien, president and business agent for the Boston Carmen's Union, said a couple hundred people from transit unions appeared at the hearing, some of them had just gotten off work that morning and others who had afternoon and night shifts later in the day.

"I was surprised they didn't have any back-up material for their study," he said of the task force.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told lawmakers that data used by the task force will be made available by the end of the week on a public website.

Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat and co-chair of the Transportation Committee said the task force outlined four potential scenarios for MBTA reform, but provided "no real background" on why they chose the establishment of a fiscal control board as their recommendation.

"The key for me is one DOT [Department of Transportation]," added Rep. William Straus, co-chair and a Mattapoisett Democrat. "One agency."

The governor's bill proposes a temporary five-member finance control board and expanding the current Massachusetts Department of Transportation board to 11 members.

"I think the Legislature knows the T has some issues that need to be dealt with and I fully expect that they're going to deal with those," Baker told reporters.

Baker conceded that the next "few weeks" could be consumed by consideration fiscal 2016 budget bills in the House and Senate, but said his "hope and expectation" is that the Legislature would address his MBTA reform bill before the summer recess.

"I think part of the Legislature's frustration with this is they feel like they're back at this again having been involved with it for the past five or six years and I'm sympathetic to that, but I think it's pretty clear that there's a lot of work that left to be done here and we're looking forward to working with them to get it done," Baker said.

Both McGee and Straus have questioned the need for a control board now that Baker has effectively taken control of the MassDOT board by forcing the resignations of all six members not appointed by him.

"I control the DOT board, which is a little different than the MBTA board. I mean, the DOT is a big operation. It does a lot of different things and I think from our point of view focus and focus and focus on the MTBA is really what's needed," Baker said on Monday.

"Let's face it. A lot of the issues that came to light during the course of the past winter were issues that involved the T and they hadn't been dealt with by the previous DOT board and that may be because they had a lot of other stuff on their plate besides just the T," Baker said. "I think a heavy focus and emphasis on just the T is exactly the way to go here."

Pollack said her goal is to create "one DOT."

Pollack told lawmakers it would be "unfortunate" if the fiscal control board isn't created.

The current state transportation board oversees both the Department of Transportation and the MBTA.

"It really is set up as a body that has a very 40,000 foot view of what goes on at the T," she said when asked by Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell) whether there was any reason that the current board can't serve in the role envisioned for the fiscal control board.

"It doesn't really get involved in contracting decisions, procurement decisions, prioritization decisions," Pollack said.

Asked about the make-up of the proposed fiscal control board, Sullivan said the governor will be looking for people like engineers and transportation consultants, and the board could have labor representation. Sullivan noted that both the House speaker and Senate president would be able to recommend appointees.

As Sullivan spoke, a union member sitting near the panel as it testified pressed him on the quality of the people. "It will be people of a high caliber," Sullivan responded.

Rep. Daniel Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat, said the task force did not include an employee representative, so its recommendations can be viewed as "adversarial." The comment prompted applause from union members in the audience.

But task force members expressed confidence in their findings.

Straus asked whether they had seen the direct documents dealing with the MBTA underspending its capital budget by $2 billion

There is an image out in the public about $2 billion "sitting around in a drawer unspent," Straus said. "That's what the public thinks."

Brian McMorrow, a task force member and Massport official, said the information came from the MBTA.

When Straus pressed again for information, Sullivan, the Braintree mayor, said, "The money was available."

After the hearing, McGee said he still wanted to see the data. "The best we get is they believe that the money was there," he said.

Pollack said the MBTA and the Department of Transportation are working on a one-year capital plan and hope to have it done in time for the start of fiscal year 2016.

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat whose district includes the Braintree branch of the Red Line, asked for any specific instances in which the MBTA was "thwarted" due to the Pacheco law. The law, named for Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), restricts the government's ability to privately contract for services.

Northeastern University's Bob Gittens, a task force member, told the Transportation Committee that there was a "general pattern" and the law is seen as a barrier.

Outside the hearing room, Pacheco defended the law. "They didn't have any specifics," he said. "But yet there's a recommendation with no specifics."

Baker's legislation and the House's fiscal 2016 budget proposal suspends the Pacheco law for the MBTA, as recommended by the task force.

Pacheco said suspending the law would be the "same as repealing it."

O'Brien, the union official, said suspending the Pacheco law for the MBTA will lead to the practice spreading to other agencies. "This is an attack on labor in general," he said.

During the hearing, Gittens also laid out issues with MBTA employee absenteeism, saying employees miss an average of 57 working days per year.

McGee responded that data and context is needed for the absenteeism rates, and whether the rates are reflective of other public transit agencies. The MBTA has many part-time employees, he added.

McGee added that he believes 98 percent of bus rides before February were completed, and 95 percent of bus rides were completed during the snowstorms.

"I agree with you that context is important," Gittens said.

Gittens said that due to unplanned absenteeism, more than 6,400 bus trips were cancelled in January and February. The cancellations have a ripple effect, because that leads to other buses becoming crowded.

"It has a consequence in terms of services," he told lawmakers.

O'Brien told the News Service that the absenteeism is partly because MBTA management encouraged employees to apply for the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"Management gave them that opportunity and told them to apply," he said.



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