Baker sees lawmakers’ MBTA reform plan as flawed
Governor says overhaul by legislators lacking on hikes, oversight
Governor Charlie Baker reacted coolly to a major MBTA overhaul bill unveiled by lawmakers Monday afternoon, setting up possible fights over fare hikes and how the troubled agency is managed.
The measure would create a version of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority oversight panel that Baker has sought for months. But the governor suggested that the board envisioned by lawmakers would not have enough authority to make the required changes at the public transit agency.
“I am pleased to see progress toward fixing the MBTA,” he said in a statement. “But solving the chronic problems that plague the agency will require a strong fiscal management and control board armed with the appropriate tools to make meaningful reforms.”
Administration officials said their chief concern is that the panel would report to the larger Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, diluting its power.
But Senator Thomas McGee, cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation and a key architect of the bill, noted that the governor would appoint both panels. And he said the fiscal control board would have plenty of authority.
“They have the power, the control, and the accountability to get things done that need to be done,” he said.
McGee, a Lynn Democrat, added that changes sought by fiscal control board members would need approval from the transportation board only if they affect the state’s larger transportation system. “They can make all kinds of changes that impact the T alone,” he said.
The package also rejects Baker’s suggested change on how fares are set. The governor wants to lift a cap that limits increases to 5 percent every two years. The move, the administration argues, would give the T more flexibility.
But advocates and lawmakers say the cap allows for predictable fare hikes for the agency and riders alike.
“Taking that away . . . did not seem to make sense,” said Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who is cochairman of the transportation committee.
The long-awaited legislative package released Monday is the latest salvo in a months-long debate on Beacon Hill over how to fix the MBTA, whose winter struggles brought decades of problems at the public transit agency into sharp focus.
Baker unveiled a legislative package in April that included a fiscal and management control board, greater leeway to privatize services and raise fares, and changes in a binding arbitration system that critics say favors unions in contract disputes.
Lawmakers have dealt with bits and pieces of the proposal. The House of Representatives approved a measure giving the T greater authority to privatize services for five years. And the Senate approved a version of the fiscal control board.
But the joint transportation committee has been toiling for weeks to put together the comprehensive bill released Monday.
The measure includes some nuts-and-bolts changes the administration has sought, including changes in T procurement procedures.
It also includes some new ideas. The legislation, for instance, would allow the T to transfer its ferry service to Massport, the agency that operates Boston’s Logan International Airport and several maritime facilities.
But the lawmakers who crafted the bill omitted key elements of the Baker plan.
The legislation, for instance, drops Baker’s proposed changes to the binding arbitration system for settling T labor contracts. But Straus emphasized the debate is still open. “I don’t view us as accepting or rejecting the governor’s proposal,” he said. “I view that. . . as very much on the plate for discussion.”
The transportation committee is expected to sign off on the legislative package by Tuesday afternoon and send it to the House of Representatives, where it could be amended before the full chamber votes on the bill.
If the House approves the measure, it would then go to the Senate. Lawmakers hope to get a T overhaul on the governor’s desk by the end of July.
Rafael Mares, a public transit advocate and senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said he was pleased with the legislation, in part because it omitted some of the Baker administration proposals that most worried him.
“The legislation should be applauded not just for what it does, but also for what it avoids,” he said.
Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the legislation is a “great first step” but added that “we’re looking forward to the bill being strengthened as it moves through the process.”
She held out hope for changes to the binding arbitration system and greater leeway to privatize services at the T. The fight over privatization, however, appears likely to play out in a separate negotiation over the state budget.
Straus, the cochairman on the transportation committee, has long argued that the T should not be a quasi-independent agency but rather a piece of the larger Department of Transportation, directly accountable to the governor. The legislation released Monday takes some steps in that direction.
It would give the governor’s secretary of transportation the authority to negotiate the contract of the T general manager, drawing a straight line between the governor and the agency’s day-to-day administrator.
It would also create a commission that would study putting future MBTA employees in the pension system that serves most state employees, rather than a separate T system often criticized as opaque.