Critics fault key findings in Baker panel MBTA report
Absenteeism figures called overstated; Baker official stands by review, pushes for fixes
When Governor Charlie Baker announced his plan to overhaul the beleaguered MBTA, he repeatedly cited a critical report by his own T review panel. But a closer look at the document suggests some of the panel’s signature findings are not as clear-cut as they might seem.
The study’s declarations of eye-popping worker absenteeism — far worse than in other cities — appear overstated, a Globe analysis found. An assertion that the absences lead to “tens of thousands” of canceled bus trips each year does not square with the best available T data. And a charge that the agency left $2.2 billion in available funds unspent over the past five years omits some important context.
Critics say the report’s flawed findings, taken together, overemphasize the T’s management failings and distract from the need for more funding for the agency.
“If we don’t accurately assess the symptoms, then we will apply the wrong treatment,” said Rafael Mares, a senior lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation and one of several advocates, analysts, and lawmakers who have questioned the findings of the Governor’s Special Panel to Review the MBTA.
Administration officials have pushed back, calling the report a rapid diagnosis of an agency in crisis and dismissing criticism as the nitpicking of those unwilling to confront real problems at the T. “I categorically reject the charges that the panel’s numbers were not true,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, at a recent event at Suffolk University.
“You want to fight about whether 9 percent of the workforce is out on any given day, 10 percent of the workforce is out on any given day, or 11 percent of the workforce is out on any given day?” she said, referring to critiques of the absenteeism data. “The T’s still trying to run a system with one in 10 of its workers not at work on any given day of the week.”
Some outside the administration have defended the report, too, as an important, comprehensive account of the T’s problems.
Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said her group’s own months-long review of the public transit agency reached similar conclusions about mounting deficits and a failure to properly manage upgrades to trains, tracks, and other infrastructure. “We can’t have near-reforms,” she said. “We really need what’s effectively a rescue plan.”
The sparring over the integrity of the report plays out against a tense Beacon Hill debate over how to fix the T.
Leaders of the Senate have opposed Baker’s call for a special fiscal and management control board to oversee the agency, voiced skepticism about his push to privatize services at the T, and frequently brought up the need for more revenue, at some point, for the system.
Baker, in a letter to lawmakers last week, warned that “marginal changes to oversight” of the T “will produce little or no meaningful improvement” and urged them to approve his full package of reforms.
One point the governor has repeatedly referenced in his call for better management: The $2.2 billion the T left “in the drawer unspent” over the past five years, as he put it at one news conference. The money in question is part of the T’s capital budget, which funds construction projects and upgrades to infrastructure.
Concern about that infrastructure — and how effectively the MBTA is improving it — is particularly pronounced following the equipment failures that paralyzed the region during this winter’s snowstorms.
But a T analysis, prepared after the release of the panel’s report, shows hundreds of millions of unspent dollars from this period were not simply sitting idle — they were “obligated,” or set aside for pending projects, such as the long-planned extension of the Green Line into Somerville and Medford.
Asked if the T review panel should have asked for information on obligated funds before publishing its report, Pollack said “there were a million questions the panel could have asked.” But the group, she said, was tasked with providing a rapid diagnostic of the T in just a few weeks’ time.
There are, moreover, some important unanswered questions about the obligated money: How wisely did the T allocate those funds? Is the agency expeditiously spending the money it has put aside? Does it have the wherewithal to spend expeditiously?
Baker officials are looking into those questions. And they point to other parts of the T panel report that suggest significant procurement bottlenecks at the T; one section rues a decades-long process for overhauling the Government Center station in downtown Boston.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the 175 cities and towns served by the agency, said the panel fixed on a real problem, but may have pushed its analysis too far.
“I think the commission’s report is accurate in the sense that the MBTA does not spend money efficiently,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a $2.2 billion problem.”
Regan said that appeared to be a theme running through the report. It found real issues, he said, but overstated them.
One headline-grabbing finding in the panel’s report: Alarming absenteeism double that of comparable public transit agencies. According to the panel, the average T employee misses 57 days of work per year, the equivalent of one day per week. The report made it clear the figure includes vacation days and indicated, in a footnote, that it also includes categories such as military leave and jury duty.
But it did not draw a distinction between what is known as “scheduled absences,” such as vacation and military leave, and “unscheduled absences,” such as family and medical leave, sick days, and injuries.
Unscheduled absences cause the most trouble for an agency attempting to run its buses and trains on time. And T documents show the average employee had 22.5 unscheduled absences in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014.
That makes for an absence rate of 8.6 percent, when measured against the total 261 work days that year. The figure jumps to 9.9 percent if vacation days and other scheduled absences are taken out of the baseline work year.
But both of those numbers are lower than the 11 to 12 percent laid out in the report. And while the panel said MBTA absenteeism is twice the average of “peer agencies,” it is not clear that is the case.
For instance, a spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which serves San Francisco and surrounding communities, said their agency’s absenteeism rate was 13 percent in 2014.
The absentee rate in Chicago, by contrast, is smaller than Boston’s, but not half the size, as the Baker administration suggests.
Officials point to a 2013 release that pegs the Chicago Transit Authority absenteeism rate at 5.5 percent. But a spokesman for the CTA told the Globe the 5.5 percent figure was unusually low because of an influx of new employees that year; new employees tend to miss fewer days. The rate jumped to a more typical 6.1 percent in 2014. That figure, given the way the CTA calculates it, compares most directly to the 8.6 percent tally at the T.
Baker officials also point to an audit of Washington, D.C.’s transit system that pegged that agency’s absenteeism rate at 5 percent. But the data is more than a decade old.
Pollack, the transportation secretary, said the comparisons to other agencies are less important than the raw numbers of MBTA absences. “The truth is, when [T panel members] were presented by MBTA staff with the absolute numbers on absenteeism, their immediate conclusion was: ‘This is a major problem,’ ” she said.
Most outside observers agree absenteeism at the T is a problem; abuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act is a particular concern.
But it is not clear the absences, however significant, have the impact the report suggested.
Baker’s panel said “tens of thousands of bus trips are canceled each year due to unplanned absences.” T documents released after the report was published show the figure, in fiscal 2014, was 17,829 — a smaller number than the “tens of thousands” language suggested and less than 1 percent of the 2,076,069 scheduled bus trips for the year.
Steve Koczela, a pollster who has reported on the absenteeism and bus trip findings on CommonWealth magazine’s website, said they are misleading. “In both cases, it seemed like there was more data, different data, or more context they could have provided,” he said.
Pollack said there was no intent to deceive.
The absenteeism and bus cancellation findings, she said, were based on data provided to the panel during its rapid diagnostic that have subsequently been updated. And the cancellations, if relatively small in percentage terms, are still significant for daily bus riders who might be left on the corner a handful of times over the course of a year, she argued.
The T schedule, Pollack said, is a promise. And the agency must live up to it.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story should have noted that questions raised about T absenteeism figures by Steve Koczela appeared on the CommonWealth magazine website on April 30.