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MBTA could privatize maintenance and bus driver jobs

MBTA buses rolled down Blue Hill Avenue in Boston.
MBTA buses rolled down Blue Hill Avenue in Boston. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering the privatization of driver and maintenance worker jobs, a prospect that could lead to the layoff of hundreds of employees, as it tries to cut into a multimillion dollar deficit.

The MBTA’s fiscal and management control board, which oversees the agency, told legislators in a report that MBTA management is focusing on drivers, operations employees, and maintenance workers — particularly for buses — because those areas account for about 85 percent of the MBTA’s operational costs.

Such privatization could mark Governor Charlie Baker’s most extensive effort to outsource MBTA jobs to date. It follows the T’s decision to pursue privatization of its warehouse and cash-counting operations, which potentially could eliminate more than 100 jobs.

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Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said that privatization “remains a critical tool” for the T as it seeks to close a $100 million deficit.

“The [control board] and the T’s management team are looking across the entire system at areas where the MBTA can operate more efficiently and more effectively,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The MBTA has 450 bus maintenance workers and 1,700 full- and part-time bus drivers. The agency has not yet publicly outlined specific plans, nor revealed how many jobs would be affected by privatization of bus routes and maintenance if it takes place.

In the report, the board notes that many transit systems have formed partnerships with private companies to provide driving or maintenance services.

“[As] an example of an area of opportunity, it currently costs the MBTA $169 per hour to operate its internal bus system while private carriers with whom the T contracts on select routes delivered bus service for 30 percent less,” the board wrote.

The T contracts fewer than 20 routes out of nearly 200 bus routes overall.

The potential outsourcing of operations or maintenance jobs will probably be controversial. The Boston Carmen’s Union, the T’s largest labor group, has vehemently opposed ongoing efforts to privatize other departments, such as the warehouse and cash-counting operations. This marks the first time the agency has expressed serious interest in delving into privatization of what are considered the “core services” of the agency.

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James O’Brien, president of the union, reacted with frustration.

“This report continues to use the same flawed logic that has shaped the MBTA reform debate for months — that outsourcing will somehow fix decades of neglect, woefully insufficient investment and a lack of leadership,” O’Brien said in a statement. “It won’t.”

The move is sure to cause a rift among T board members as well. The report, which was first reported by the Boston Herald, included a disclaimer that Brian Lang, a board member who is president of UNITE HERE Local 26, a hotel and food services labor group, “does not endorse all of the language.”

In an interview, Lang said that he would be open to privatizing some departments of the T, specifically those that do not provide transportation services. He pointed out that T officials have often justified outsourcing by noting that the T doesn’t have “core expertise” in cash collection or warehousing systems. But Lang said he would draw the line at contracting out obvious transportation services, such as bus drivers and maintenance workers.

“We’re in the business of providing transportation and we’re in the business — as the fiscal and management control board — of trying to right a system that has been neglected for decades,” he said. “And I don’t believe the way to right it is to contract the whole system out.”

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Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a board member who leads the 128 Business Council, which runs shuttle buses around the Route 128 western corridor, said she would be fully supportive of outsourcing the maintenance work.

“You won’t see as much downtime between our buses and trains,” she said. “A lot of delays are down when we don’t have the equipment.”

The agency will face an uphill battle because of union opposition, but it may also find opponents among riders. The agency has always contracted out its commuter rail service, and the current contractor, Keolis Commuter Services, provoked the ire of riders during the record-breaking winter of 2015.

That company has been losing millions of dollars a year on its contract, and the MBTA has recently decided to give Keolis at least $66 million more over six years to accommodate new schedules, different maintenance regimens, and other issues.

When Baker and his administration launched their efforts to transform the MBTA last year, they pushed to temporarily suspend a law that created hurdles to outsourcing jobs in the public sector. Since then, the agency has pursued privatizing its cash-counting department and warehouse operations.

The battle over privatization at the MBTA is far from new. Governor William Weld, a mentor of Baker’s who is now running as the Libertarian candidate for vice president of the United States, wanted to outsource many jobs across state agencies, including at the T, in the mid-1990s. Some of those efforts were thwarted by the privatization law that is now suspended for the T.

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Gregory Sullivan, research director at the fiscally conservative Pioneer Institute, predicted that the private sector would do a better job maintaining buses than the MBTA’s own staff.

“Frankly, I think it’s reasonable to expect that the bus maintenance would improve, not decline, just based on the fact that there’s a very big industrial sector that maintains heavy-duty vehicles here,” he said Sullivan. “I think that any industry would look at this as a no-brainer.”

The Pioneer Institute has regularly railed against the MBTA for its bus maintenance costs. Sullivan said in 2013 that the MBTA ranked fourth among the country’s 344 bus systems in highest maintenance cost per mile.

Such views are sure to lead to extended clashes this fall as the agency debates the privatization with union supporters.

“I think that we’re committed to running a world-class and efficient system, and we’ve got a ways to go,” said Lang. “But we should run our own system.”


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.