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MBTA considers the future of commuter rail service

Options include long-term pact

The MBTA board began talks yesterday on the future of one of the largest contracts in state government: the nearly $300 million-a-year deal to run the T’s commuter rail, responsible for moving 70,000 suburban workers in and out of Boston daily.

With the contract expiring in June 2013, T leaders are first considering whether the MBTA should end the outsourcing deal and run commuter rail itself.

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If they decide to stick with a contractor, they will weigh whether to continue with something like the current arrangement - a 5- or 10-year deal to manage the system using MBTA-owned trains and coaches - or try a new one, such as a decades-long, multibillion dollar pact requiring the contractor to provide some of its own equipment.

The board’s discussion came the day before a Boston transportation planning and advocacy organization was scheduled to release a report encouraging the T to consider such a long-term deal, with a round table planned for this morning on the subject.

“We would be very disappointed if the future of commuter rail looks like it looks today,’’ said Richard A. Dimino, president and chief executive of A Better City, an organization representing hospitals, universities, financial firms, and other large employers on transportation and land-use planning.

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The T runs its own bus, subway, and trolley systems, but has historically outsourced operations and maintenance of the commuter rail to contractors who use MBTA-owned equipment along rail routes that date to the 19th century.

After 16 years with Amtrak, the T awarded a five-year contract to Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co. starting in July 2003, with extensions running to 2013. The original contract contained a mix of penalties and bonuses to encourage on-time performance, but a Globe review in May found that T administrators had softened the terms through a series of amendments, even as service deteriorated.

The company drew flak last winter for a welter of delays that left thousands waiting in the cold or sitting on stalled trains.

“The board shares the frustration that has been articulated by many of our customers,’’ said Ferdinand Alvaro of Marblehead, a corporate lawyer who chairs the board’s finance committee and has said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority should strongly consider running the service itself.

That may not be the only solution.

In a presentation to the board, Eric Waaramaa, MBTA deputy director of financial planning, said that T staff is working with advisers for a better contract. That includes hiring the global audit and consulting firm KPMG to review other commuter rail arrangements nationally and internationally and consider the merits of short- and long-term deals.

In its “On the Right Track?’’ paper, A Better City pointed out challenges inherent in each option: When Philadelphia’s transit agency started running commuter rail there, for example, it sparked labor strife. But a long-term deal with contractor investment, the report said, would not absolve the T of the need to invest significantly on its own.

The paper favors such a deal with a contractor, but says it must be thoroughly assessed, warning that 19 months is insufficient for the complex financial modeling, contract development, and public review. Instead, it recommends that the T consider a brief bridge contract while working on a longer alternative.

After the T ended its stormy relationship with Amtrak, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad arrived with great promise. But officials say they have been hamstrung by aging infrastructure, weather, and other factors.

“We look forward to a public bidding process that will be open, competitive, and transparent,’’ said Scott Farmelant, spokesman for the contractor.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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