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    Governor: T made ‘right decision’ forgiving part of Keolis’s winter fines

    Snow fell as a commuter waited for a train at Anderson/Woburn station in February 2015.
    Joanne Rathe/Globe staff/file
    Snow fell as a commuter waited for a train at Anderson/Woburn station in February 2015.

    Governor Charlie Baker, who in the record-breaking winter of 2015 told the MBTA’s commuter rail operator he was “done with excuses,” said Monday that he believes the MBTA “made the right decision” in forgiving nearly half of that winter’s fines against Keolis Commuter Services.

    The Globe reported Sunday that the MBTA had quietly waived some penalties for poor service in February and March 2015, when thousands of commuters were stranded because of canceled and delayed trains. In December 2015, the MBTA paid Keolis back about $839,000 of the $1.7 million in fines that had been collected, according to the MBTA.

    Speaking to reporters Monday after an appearance at Suffolk University Law School, Baker defended the decision, referring to a provision in Keolis’s contract that allowed the MBTA to forgive fines for extreme weather or “acts of God.”

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    “It’s pretty hard to argue that the winter of 2015 wasn’t an act of God,” he said. “I had no intention, nor did the MBTA, of waiving any of their fines with on-time performance. They paid those fines and they should have, because those are the ones that most disrupted the traveling public.”

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    “But [with] the fines associated with some of the more technical stuff associated with the operating agreements that were tied more directly with the issues around the weather, I think the T made the right decision,” Baker added.

    At a weekly meeting of the MBTA’s fiscal board, acting general manager Brian Shortsleeve did not explicitly mention the decision to waive the fines, but said Keolis’s penalties and progress with service would be discussed at a later meeting.

    The president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, James O’Brien, decried the forgiven penalties, saying it represented “almost a million dollars that could have been invested into our broken system that so badly needs funding.”

    Joseph Aiello, the head of the fiscal board, declined to comment after the meeting.

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    Shortsleeve said he was not involved in negotiations over the fines, but noted the MBTA had not waived fines related to late trains.

    Under its eight-year, $2.7 billion deal with the MBTA, Keolis is fined for every late and dirty train, along with other deficiencies.

    MBTA and Baker administration officials have stressed that Keolis has paid a substantial amount in penalties. During the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, the MBTA fined Keolis about $12.8 million, and the company was docked $1.1 million during the first two months of the current fiscal year.

    But the decision to return a portion of the fines marks a shift from Baker’s public comments at the time. In February 2015, Baker said he was “done with excuses” from Keolis. In March, when the company invoked a provision in its contract that would excuse it from fines that winter, the governor’s office urged the company to “focus its energy on restoring full service to the commuter rail as soon as possible.”

    But Keolis kept pushing for relief, and the MBTA continued to negotiate. John Englander, general counsel for the MBTA and the state Department of Transportation, said Monday that the agency had received letters that “very strongly indicated that [Keolis officials] believed the fines were not in accordance with their contract.” He said he did not believe that Keolis ever threatened any legal action.

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    After months of negotiations, the MBTA decided in November to return some of the money that Keolis had paid, but only for issues such as subpar cleaning, the inability to close doors while trains were running, and not having enough trains available.

    In other news Monday, the MBTA faced criticism from the Carmen’s Union over its recent decision to privatize its cash- collection department. Patrick Hogan, a union delegate, insisted that the cost of running the department was actually $5.5 million, not the $9 million that the MBTA has stated publicly.

    Officials also announced the T may start charging for the next version of the CharlieCard when it changes its fare-collection systems.

    The move, which is common at other large transit systems, would give riders an incentive to keep the cards.

    In March, MBTA officials said they wanted to phase out the use of cash on buses and trains.

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