The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is giving strong consideration to offering a contract extension to the agency’s commuter rail operator, Keolis Commuter Services, despite a previous plan to break with the deal when it expires in 2022.
The next commuter rail contract could be one of the most important ever issued by the MBTA, which has outlined a plan to eventually transition to much more frequent, electric-powered service on some commuter lines.
But at a board meeting Monday, agency leaders said they may run low on time to conduct a full bidding process. Prior commuter rail bidding processes have taken two years — and even then failed to attract many bidders. Meanwhile, the T’s existing contract with Keolis allows it to extend the contract for two to four years, opening additional time to properly prepare the next long-term deal.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said that for now, MBTA staff should keep their options open, discussing a possible extension with Keolis while still preparing for a full procurement. The T and Keolis would be able to negotiate new terms as part of an extension.
“It’s not just buying time to get the long-term, transformative contract right," Pollack said. "It’s also ensuring that today’s riders, as they come back to the system, are getting the service that they want and deserve.”
Keolis, a French company, has had a mixed run in Greater Boston, where it won an eight-year deal worth more than $2.5 billion and took over service in 2014 — just in time for the massive snowfall that stymied service for several weeks the following winter. The Baker administration has occasionally criticized its performance in subsequent poor weather and noted uneven performance from line to line. But Keolis has improved service on some lines, most notably the popular Worcester line, and usually hits its targets for on-time performance.
In a statement, spokesman Tory Mazzola said Keolis wants to remain in Boston “for the long term," but that it would “welcome” negotiations over a short-term extension.
Pollack has said a future commuter rail contract should be significantly different than the current deal, with longer terms, more robust penalties and incentives to ensure better service, and greater contractor responsibility for infrastructure improvements.
She’s long criticized the current deal as inadequate, and in 2016 announced years early that the agency would not extend the deal past 2022. But she has hinted more recently that an extension may be in play. MBTA chairman Joseph Aiello on Monday suggested the T’s options may be limited now due to the coronavirus pandemic, since much of the agency’s staff is working at home. Pollack, however, said the MBTA faced a big decision on a possible extension even "before there was a pandemic.”
State Representative William Straus, who as cochair of the Legislature’s transportation committee had previously pushed Pollack to not extend Keolis’s current deal, said the coronavirus is a valid reason to keep the company on — but not without some major changes. He’d like to see greater emphasis on ensuring the company collects fares from riders, for example.
But he lamented that the T didn’t move sooner to begin the contracting process after Pollack’s 2016 announcement, putting the agency in a position where its best option may be an extension.
“I’m sorry to have to express my disappointment that three years of contracting opportunity appear to have been lost,” Straus said. “But it seems to me more important at the moment to make the best outcome possible going forward.”