In an attempt to overhaul the embattled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday proposed the creation of a board he would appoint to take control of the finances and operations of the agency.
The new fiscal and management control board would oversee the T for three to five years, taking power away from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, under the legislation filed by the administration Wednesday.
The bill would also open the door to fare increases by eliminating the cap on how high and how often the T can raise its fares. No immediate fare increases are contemplated, however.
Baker said such big changes are needed to strengthen the governance of what he describes as a poorly run agency that failed amid this winter’s storms. “Left alone, the MBTA would continue on an unsustainable path, and our region’s economy cannot afford this, and our taxpayers shouldn’t have to,” he said on Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the new board would be substantially different from the department board, bringing the kind of focus, urgency, and intensity needed to reform the agency.
“The control board will be meeting much more frequently and delve much more deeply into the day-to-day management of the T,” she said.
The legislation comes several years after Beacon Hill consolidated transportation agencies and board under the Transportation Department board.
“This will not undermine five years of efforts to create a unified transportation system and one MassDOT,” Pollack said, “But the truth is — for now, the T needs the extra attention.”
But key legislators are already pushing back on Baker’s proposals.
Representative William Straus, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said he is not convinced the control board has more latitude than the current state transportation board. Six of the seven department board members have stepped down at Baker’s request, so the governor will already have control of the T, he said.
“Why don’t we use this winter’s crisis as an opportunity to further streamline transportation and clear out some of the bureaucracy, instead of creating a new temporary bureaucracy?” he asked.
Under his legislation, Baker’s five-member board would establish operating and capital budget plans and introduce performance metrics for the T. The board would have many of the same powers held by the current board, including the authority over major contracts the MBTA has already entered into, such as an eight-year contract awarded to Keolis Commuter Services to run the commuter rail.
The bill would not give the new board power to change union contracts already approved by the department board, said Tim Buckley, an administration spokesman.
In his legislation, Baker also proposed the elimination of promised additional funding that was outlined for state transportation system, including the T, in a 2013 transportation finance bill. Over the next five fiscal years, the transportation system would have received an additional $500 million under the law.
The move to get rid of that promised funding drew criticism from Senator Thomas M. McGee, cochairman of the Transportation Committee. “I think it’s a big mistake to be stepping back from the commitment we made in 2013,” said McGee, a Democrat. “The panel itself talks about ‘reform and revenue’ together, and now we’re taking dollars away.”
Administration officials have pushed back on the characterization, saying the state is still heavily subsidizing the agency. Buckley said the legislation counts on the new control board to help rein in “out-of-control costs” and maximize the T’s own revenues.
That increased revenue may come from fare increases, though the administration did not present a timeline for any increases. Pollack said there are no plans to raise fares substantially “overnight,” and said state law mandates certain procedures before any increase is implemented.
Baker also shied away from committing to immediate fare increases, saying he hoped the board would focus first on “the fixes that need to take place.”
The proposal unveiled on Wednesday contained few surprises, and largely hewed to the recommendations from an expert panel Baker appointed in February. Earlier this month, the panel released a sharply critical report that blasted the T for having pervasive structural and organizational failures.
The new control board — along with a new head of the T — is supposed to turn around the agency in three to five years, under this new legislation. The proposal would allow Baker to choose the new general manager of the T, who would be called the “chief administrator” of the agency.
Baker also proposed substantial changes to the Transportation Department board, which would still oversee department business. The administration hopes to expand the department board from seven to 11 members, with eight serving four-year terms at the same time as the governor.
The department board would again take control of the T after the new control board is dissolved, according to the legislation.
The proposal is sure to stoke opposition from the agency’s unions. Baker took aim at the MBTA’s pensions, proposing an independent audit of the retirement fund within 180 days of the law going into effect. The legislation would stop retirement payments to the fund for new hires until the audit is completed.
The bill also asks the Legislature to change the agency’s binding arbitration system for labor contracts, which critics have seen as a drain to the T’s finances. Under the legislation, the fiscal control board would need to approve an arbitrator’s award in a labor dispute.
In addition, Baker wants to free the agency of the Pacheco law, an antiprivatization law that makes it difficult for the T to contract out major services.
The executive board of the Boston Carmen’s Union said in a statement that suspending the Pacheco law “will only make a bad situation worse for riders and taxpayers.”
“We are committed to working cooperatively with the governor and Legislature to make the T the best transit system in the country, but suspending oversight of private contractors at the MBTA is not in the public interest,” the statement said.