fb-pixel
Shirley Leung

Time for T to rethink privatization

The use of full-size buses and trains for fewer passengers makes extended MBTA weekend train and bus service more costly.
The use of full-size buses and trains for fewer passengers makes extended MBTA weekend train and bus service more costly.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/File 2015

It costs the MBTA a staggering $20 per passenger to provide late-night bus service. At that rate, the authority might as well hand out cab vouchers.

But if the T can be cut free from the state’s antiprivatization law — which Governor Charlie Baker and Speaker Bob DeLeo are proposing to do — it just might be able to operate a night owl service that makes financial sense.

And here’s how: Get someone else to run it.

Now, I know the mere thought has members of the Carmen’s Union and their supporters in the Senate fuming, but let’s not make privatization the bogeyman — or for that matter, the system’s savior. The T has plenty of functions that are privatized, from commuter rail to ferry service, with varying degrees of success.

Advertisement



No one is proposing to outsource all bus or subway operations, but the T needs more flexibility in order for true reform to take root. In other words, we can’t keep the same handcuffs on if we ever want to escape our miserable transit past.

“I am not saying privately run services are a panacea,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told me. “They are a tool, and they need to be an option.”

The antiprivatization statute, known on Beacon Hill as the Pacheco Law after its primary sponsor, Senator Marc Pacheco of Taunton, was created in 1993 in reaction to Governor Bill Weld’s privatization initiatives. The law, pushed through by public employee unions, makes it difficult for certain Massachusetts agencies to contract with private firms for any work being done by state workers. Baker is proposing to free the MBTA from the constraints of Pacheco, while DeLeo’s version calls for a five-year suspension of the statute.

So let’s get back to the example of late-night service, and imagine what Pollack could do if the Pacheco law no longer applied to the MBTA.

Advertisement



Last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority launched with much fanfare a one-year pilot to extend train and bus service until 2:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Fares do not cover the cost of running the T, but the subsidy on late-night service is substantially more. For example, a typical bus ride costs the MBTA $2.74 per passenger, while the cost for late-night service is nearly eight times the amount.

It’s more expensive because the agency is using its full-size 40-seat buses at night when there are fewer riders. What’s more, the buses run on a schedule designed for daytime commuters.

Freed to do what it wants, the MBTA could hire an outfit like Bridj, the upstart Boston transit service that employs 14-passenger bus shuttles and designs demand-based schedules. The savings come from being able to adapt to a nighttime business model.

But the opportunity to use partners like Bridj goes beyond providing a special service. Similarly, the MBTA could save money by outsourcing bus routes with low ridership — and there are many of them. For example, one route in Lynn makes nine trips a day carrying a total of 45 people, which means on average of five people are riding that bus.

But eliminating Pacheco is not just about saving money. It can also be about improving service. Yes, the MBTA could actually add routes with the help of private partners.

That’s what most excites Bridj founder and chief executive Matt George — the ability to bring his idea of flexible mass transit, well, to the masses who ride the MBTA. When he launched Bridj last summer, he never considered it competing with public transportation.

Advertisement



“We are in a supplementary position,” George said. “We are neither set up nor we are interested in wholesale taking over anything.”

Another big idea from Pollack is to look at whether the MBTA should own and maintain its rail cars and buses. Perhaps the state should look at whether it’s more cost-effective to lease — and require the manufacturer to maintain those vehicles.

That, in one fell swoop, attacks two problems. The T cannot keep up with maintenance of the existing fleet and infrastructure, with a $6.7 billion backlog of repairs that is growing. It also has come under fire for spending $80 million annually on bus maintenance, nearly twice as much as other transit agencies, according to an analysis by the Pioneer Institute, which blames the high cost on overstaffing.

Here are some more numbers from the Pioneer Institute to chew on. Unlike the MBTA, the regional transit authorities — from Springfield to Lowell — can outsource. They spend, on average, $6.38 per mile to operate their privatized lines, compared with the MBTA, which spends $16.63 per mile to run its bus routes.

The fear of privatization comes down to taking away somebody’s job. If that’s the case, the Senate should work up a compromise to make sure union drivers are at the wheels of private buses.

Advertisement



A reprieve from the Pacheco Law would go a long way to fixing the T. But, as the governor told lawmakers last month in defense of his broad plan to shake up the T, if nothing changes, then nothing will change.


Shirley Leung is a Globe
columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.