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Lobbying on MBTA overhaul intensifies

The governor has called for a new panel to oversee the public transit system and greater leeway to privatize services and raise fares.
The governor has called for a new panel to oversee the public transit system and greater leeway to privatize services and raise fares.(Steve Senne/AP)

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s largest union will launch a radio advertisement Friday praising Governor Charlie Baker but calling a key element of his T overhaul plan a “dark cloud.”

Elsewhere on the dial, an ad titled “Crazy Train” from the conservative advocacy group Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance will blast “union bosses” and urge support for the governor’s legislation.

The dueling spots are the latest salvos in a growing campaign of phone bank operations, petitions, and geographically targeted social media advertisements that will help shape the future of the fifth-largest public transit system in the country.

“It’s the lifeblood of the economy,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and cochairwoman of a coalition of mayors and business groups pushing Baker’s plan. “This has to be fixed and we needed to start yesterday.”

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The legislative fight is coming to a head months after a series of winter storms crippled the T, exposing decades of problems at the agency and pushing reform to the top of the Beacon Hill agenda.

The governor has called for a new panel to oversee the public transit system and greater leeway to privatize services and raise fares.

But he has faced stiff resistance from some lawmakers, who argue the current restrictions on privatization have served the state well and lifting a cap on fare increases would hurt riders.

Advocates are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence the debate, much of it flowing from the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, which represents just over 4,000 active bus drivers, train drivers, maintenance workers, and others.

The union, whose leadership has met privately with the governor to find common ground, is broadcasting a two-pronged message: declaring in $250,000 worth of radio ads that it wants to help improve the public transit agency, and suggesting that a central plank of the governor’s plan — privatizing more T services — would be harmful.

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In the spot scheduled to air for the first time Friday, a jaunty male announcer says “we commend the governor . . . for wisely giving T workers a place at the table,” but adds that “there is still one dark cloud.”

A female announcer then warns about “greedy privatizers” and suggests any effort to outsource more T services could lead to the sort of cost overruns that plagued the Big Dig highway construction project.

Michael Goldman, a veteran political consultant working with the Carmen’s Union, says the local plans to spend another $150,000 on radio spots in the coming weeks and may supplement that with $50,000 in print advertisements.

The Carmen’s international parent organization, Amalgamated Transit Union, has weighed in with a radio advertisement of its own decrying “shark privatizers,” complete with Jaws-like music.

And Larry Hanley, the international president of Amalgamated Transit Union, wrote in a Boston Globe opinion article that Baker is “exploiting Bostonians’ frustration with last winter’s blizzard breakdown of public transit to push through an MBTA reform package that will jeopardize the service, safety, and affordability of Boston’s bus and rail service.”

Proponents of the Baker plan have taken a lower-budget approach. But they still have been active.

A group called the Coalition for a World Class Public Transit System, including five mayors and 32 business groups such as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, estimates it has spent about $40,000 collecting 10,000 signatures for a petition backing Baker’s legislation.

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Paul Craney, executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, estimated his group has dropped $5,000 to $10,000 on its own campaign.

Last week, the alliance made phone calls to about 85,000 voters in the districts of two Democratic state senators who have resisted elements of the governor’s legislation, Thomas McGee and Marc Pacheco.

The group says it connected with about 2,100 of those voters and patched about 180 of them through to the senators’ offices.

Neither McGee nor Pacheco, the author of the law that requires state agencies to prove privatization would save money before they outsource, are likely to be moved by the alliance’s advocacy.

But Craney, who also targeted the senators’ constituents with Facebook ads, says the group wanted to send a message to other legislators about what it will do if they reject Baker’s plan.

And just in case the message wasn’t clear, the organization sent a letter to lawmakers this week reminding them of the 2 million pieces of mail it sent to voters last year and adding that it was poised to “inform everyone across the Commonwealth exactly . . . how their representatives and senators” vote on T reform.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.