How should the MBTA characterize its progress?
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Does the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority have a data problem?
The T is becoming more transparent with data in many ways, as a fiscal control board and Governor Charlie Baker's administration try to turn around the beleaguered agency. For one, officials post daily performance statistics on an easy-to-read, easy-to-access website.
But the T has also repeatedly touted statistics comparing its performance in the last year to 2015 — which also happens to be the year Boston had its worst winter ever on the books.
Context is crucial here. Does it truly make sense to show how the T is doing this year compared with last year, when every problem that ails the MBTA (and believe me, there are many) was exacerbated by Mother Nature?
For example, the T has touted data showing workers clocking in about 40 percent fewer overtime hours, comparing the first six months of 2016 with those months in 2015.
But if you compare the numbers with the same period during 2014, the drop is less dramatic — about 17 percent. And in 2014, overtime hours had already dropped 8 percent from 2013.
Officials have also said driver absences are down 23 percent from January to June, compared with last year, and they say the number of canceled bus trips is down 38 percent. I asked T officials for the 2014 numbers to create a better comparison, but officials weren't able to provide that data in time for publication.
Asked why the T doesn't use other comparisons more frequently to make up for the anomaly of 2015, a T spokesman did not respond for several days.
The T should still get some credit. A 17 percent drop in overtime hours is significant. And the T has reduced that figure in a big way: For this fiscal year, officials say they have only an $80 million shortfall, compared with their original estimate of $242 million.
But the comparisons rile some people, particularly data experts. Steven Koczela, the president of MassInc Polling, put it this way in a tweet: It's akin to taking credit for the weather.
The Boston Carmen's Union on Friday pushed back against Governor Charlie Baker's claim that someone had cut unauthorized sunroofs into armored cars used by Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers.
The union on Friday called Baker's statement "pure fiction" and released photographs of a partial fiberglass ceiling on the tops of the armored cars.
The back-and-forth about the sunroofs on armored cars came as Baker and MBTA officials made moves to privatize the agency's cash-counting operation, known at the agency as "the money room." On Friday, the agency released a request for proposals asking companies to bid on taking over the operation.
Baker mentioned the makeshift sunroofs Wednesday as part of a wide-ranging speech detailing the progress the administration has made in improving the beleaguered agency.
On Friday, Billy Pitman, a spokesman for the governor's office, defended the governor's statement, saying it was "consistent" with an independent audit that showed the roofs had been altered after the vehicles had been bought.
"The facts are clear: The money room's operations are sub-par at best, from the alarms to the doors, and to the trucks, it is clear the status quo cannot continue at the MBTA," he wrote in a statement, adding that the administration would continue to push to use privatization as a way to "reform the MBTA."
The MBTA has not made a copy of the audit available.
In recent weeks, the agency released several details from the audit that showed security lapses, such as duct-taped doors to the agency's money vault and doors being propped open in a facility that is supposed to be secure. The agency also quietly replaced several Transit Police officers with security guards from the private company G4S.
Seven drivers in the department who use the armored trucks to collect cash across the Boston region have also received notices that said they would no longer have jobs in the money room, but they could return to their previous jobs as bus drivers for the T.
The workers who clean the MBTA's stations are worried about impending layoffs, saying that they were told the MBTA is asking its janitorial service contractors to cut positions.
The MBTA currently outsources its cleaning services to two companies: ABM Industries and S.J. Services. In 2013, the T signed a three-year contract, with a possible two-year extension, with the companies for a total of $61.8 million.
Roxana Rivera, the vice president of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union District 615, said the companies told union workers that T officials said they are seeking additional cuts.
Rivera said such layoffs would only hurt riders, who are already paying higher fares.
The staff "is already cut to the bone, and we have workers cleaning multiple stations," she said. "The T is going to be messier, given the type of cleaning that's needed. We don't believe that it's going to do anything to solve the T's financial problem."
MBTA officials and representatives from ABM Industries and S.J. Services did not respond to requests for comment.