The three Democratic leaders of the Legislature’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority caucus are urging Governor Charlie Baker to hold Keolis Commuter Services “fully accountable” for its performance by forcing the company to pay back fines that were quietly forgiven last year.
The MBTA had levied about $1.7 million in penalties against Keolis Commuter Services for poor service during the record-breaking winter of 2015. But after months of private negotiations, the MBTA agreed to return $839,000 to the company.
In a letter sent Thursday, state Senator Jamie Eldridge, of Acton; state Representative Sean Garballey, of Arlington; and state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, of Dorchester, blasted the MBTA’s decision to return the fines, which wasn’t publicly disclosed until the Globe reported it last Sunday.
“We were pleased when the Baker-Polito administration and MBTA officials pledged to discuss decisions about our public transit system openly, but the decision to dismiss fines behind closed doors is disturbing,” the legislators wrote.
The lawmakers wrote that they had appreciated Baker’s tough stance on Keolis’s performance during the winter of 2015, when he said he was “done with excuses” from the company. But his decision to forgive the fines was regrettable, they said.
“We are now disappointed to hear that you believe that the MBTA ‘made the right decision’ in forgiving the fines,” the lawmakers wrote.
At the time, Keolis Commuter Services, which has an eight-year, $2.7 billion deal with the state to run the commuter rail system, invoked a provision in its contract that lets it sidestep fines in cases of extreme weather, or “acts of God.” This week, Baker cited that clause in defending the MBTA’s decision.
Under the Baker administration, MBTA officials had prided themselves on being forthright about the agency’s problems. In their letter, the legislators said they were unaware about the fines, despite frequent meetings with the state’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, and the MBTA’s acting general manager, Brian Shortsleeve.
“So we were surprised that this important decision, both from a substantive and a transparency point of view, was not shared with the caucus,” they wrote.
A Keolis spokeswoman referred questions about the letter to the governor’s office.
Elizabeth Guyton, a spokeswoman for Baker, said in a statement that Keolis has been held to the terms of its contract, paying nearly $14 million in fines over the past two years. Officials have previously noted that Keolis did pay nearly $868,000 in fines for late trains in February and March of 2015.
Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said in a statement that the agency “appreciates and understands” the concerns raised by the legislators but said that winter subjected the commuter rail system “to extraordinary circumstances beyond its control.”
In an interview, Eldridge, a frequent critic of Baker, blasted the administration’s “light treatment” of Keolis. Under the Baker administration, the MBTA has also granted at least $66 million more to Keolis over the life of its contract and allowed the company to designate more than $5 million in fines for additional staffing, he noted.
“His administration’s decision to forgive these fines is sending a bad message not only to Keolis, but to commuters, many of whom lost productive work days, had difficulty taking care of their kids, and yet, were not reimbursed for their income,” Eldridge said.
Baker this week also said the fines were related to “technical” issues, rather than on-time performance. But many violations clearly affected customers, such as short staffing, doors and toilets that didn’t work, and train shortages.