When the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said it was looking for a company to install anti-collision technology equipment on the Green Line earlier this year, four Massachusetts companies jumped at the chance.
When the transit agency needed a company to handle urgent structural repairs, two Massachusetts firms applied.
But when the T wanted a company to hire and oversee about 200 T Ambassadors charged with cheerfully greeting commuters, helping riders with CharlieCards, and reporting maintenance issues, a single bid came in. It was from a Tennessee company offering to do the job for five years at a cost of $102 million — the same company that has had the contract since 2017, when the T first outsourced the positions.
The lack of interest and size of the contract prompted a rare grilling from the MBTA’s usually amenable board of directors at their meeting last month.
Robert Butler, a member of the board of directors and also a top transportation workers union official, questioned why the T needs an out-of-state company to oversee local employees.
“From my standpoint, that’s a huge contract you’re giving out . . .” Butler said at the meeting. “I’m not a fan of that, I’m sorry.”
“I’m very surprised about the size of the contract and the lack of responsiveness,” said Travis McCready, another board member.
The company that wants the new contract, MyDatt Services, also known as Block by Block, has been overseeing in-station customer service workers for the T since 2017 on shorter, one-year contracts. The MBTA said the company is in charge of hiring the workers and providing some training. MyDatt Services, a Tennessee company, owns Block by Block, a Kentucky company.
Directors asked the MBTA’s chief procurement and contracts administration officer, Jeff Cook, to report back to them about whether the company provides benefits for workers — who make about $20 an hour — and why the MBTA still thinks it’s a good idea to pay an out-of-state company to manage these positions.
The current contract expires at the end of July, the T confirmed. The MBTA board is expected to vote on the new contract before then.
Blair McBride, president of Block by Block, declined to comment, referring questions to the MBTA.
The MBTA decided to privatize customer service employees in 2017, promising multimillion dollar savings. The agency appears to be achieving this, according to previous T cost estimates.
For the first year of the new contract, the T plans to pay MyDatt $14.9 million, far less than the annual cost before privatization. In 2017, the T said it was spending about $19.6 million a year on salaries, benefits, and overtime for in-station customer service workers, according to a Globe article.
Over the course of the new five-year contract, the T expects MyDatt to hire more T Ambassadors, scaling up to a $26.7 million operation in 2026. MyDatt plans to make about a $6 million profit over the course of five years.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo declined to provide information about what benefits the T Ambassadors get through MyDatt Services. There are still 28 customer service agents working directly for the T, holdovers retained under an agreement with the Carmen’s Union.
Greg Sullivan, the Pioneer Institute’s research director and a former state inspector general, has been a vocal advocate for privatizing MBTA services to cut costs. But, he said, having only one company, the incumbent company, from out of state bid on the contract is an “unfortunate outcome.”
“The fact that no local companies bid shows that there’s a problem with the procurement,” he said. “It should not be that onerous a task for the T to identify customer service companies who can form this contract in Massachusetts.”
The MBTA published its request for proposals for the new T Ambassador contract on the state’s procurement record system to broadcast the ad to more than 200 companies, according to Cook. Some said that the scope of the contract was too large for them, Cook told board members.
Sullivan said there’s more to be done.
“You have to go out and recruit,” he said.
Some T Ambassadors, who would prefer the MBTA return to hiring customer service workers directly, are discussing how to form a union of their own or join an existing one.
“You don’t need to spend $100 million of taxpayer money on an outside company,” said a T Ambassador who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The MBTA is the only major transit agency in the United States that outsources these roles, a Globe review found.
Spokespeople for Washington, D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, L.A. Metro, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, Chicago Transit Authority, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia, and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority all said the agencies hire their in-person customer service employees directly and most belong to unions. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania authority said the agency hired additional temporary in-station customer service workers through an outside company when it changed its fare system.
The MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, said at last month’s board meeting that the T has over 100 open jobs and is focused on hiring for safety and bus driver positions. The MBTA cut bus service at the end of last year and is still struggling to hire faster than bus drivers are leaving, even after adding hiring bonuses.
“The notion of internally standing up another function,” Poftak told board members, “I think would be very difficult for the T to do at the current time.”