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    MBTA misses spending target on infrastructure upgrades

    Brian Shortsleeve (above), the acting general manager of the MBTA, says the agency is “making progress” on spending money on infrastructure projects.
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016
    Brian Shortsleeve (above), the acting general manager of the MBTA, says the agency is “making progress” on spending money on infrastructure projects.

    The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is on pace to miss its yearly spending target for upgrades to vehicles, tracks, and other infrastructure, a key Baker administration initiative with broad implications on the system’s performance.

    The agency estimates it will spend about $675 million on “state of good repair” projects this fiscal year, falling well short of its $759 million goal despite a recent surge in investments, officials told the MBTA’s fiscal control board at its weekly Monday meeting.

    “We are making progress, but this is a mixed report,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the MBTA’s acting general manager. The MBTA had increased spending over the last fiscal year by 25 percent to 35 percent, he said.

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    The shortfall underscores the agency’s slow progress on infrastructure spending, despite a lengthy backlog of deferred projects. In recent years, the MBTA has released eye-popping estimates of the cost of getting its vehicles, tracks, and other infrastructure in good working order, and vowed to make inroads.

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    The failure also comes as the agency released figures that showed little, if any, progress in absenteeism rates for drivers, another area the Baker administration had targeted for improvement. MBTA statistics show that absenteeism is on track to rise this fiscal year, which ends in June.

    In 2015, officials placed the cost of a system-wide upgrade at $7.3 billion, estimating it had to spend $765 million per year for 25 years to address the backlog. Independent groups have said the estimate is likely too low.

    Joanne Aalto, the MBTA’s assistant general manager of capital programs oversight, told the board that officials had hoped to boost spending by nearly 60 percent, but had not been able to award enough contracts in recent years.

    The agency has been able to double its spending on vehicles, including about $173 million on buses.

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    Infrastructure spending seems likely to increase in the next few years, as a $577 million order for Red and Orange Line vehicles, initiated under former governor Deval Patrick’s administration, comes through. In December, Baker’s administration expanded the original order, buying 134 more Red Line cars from the same company for about $277 million.

    Aalto acknowledged that the MBTA had not awarded as many contracts for repair projects in the past three years, but said officials are focused on advertising and awarding them faster. The original goal was ambitious, she added.

    MBTA observers, such as Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, said they weren’t taken aback by the slow progress. Aloisi, a Patrick appointee who now advocates for more public transportation spending, said the agency needs more public money to accelerate the pace of repairs.

    “I have the impression that the general consensus is that there aren’t enough internal resources to get the job done,” he said, adding that the MBTA can’t be faulted for wanting to increase the spending in the area. “It needs net new revenue, in part to hire qualified people who can help accelerate the pace of the work.”

    The MBTA also reported that drivers’ unscheduled absence rate so far this fiscal year is 11 percent, ahead of last year’s rate. The MBTA said the rate was about 10.39 percent during the 2016 fiscal year. It was an improvement from the 2015 fiscal year, when rates were inflated by record-breaking snowfall.

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    In 2016, the MBTA issued a new policy for absences, and says there would be an additional focus going forward.

    ‘We are making progress, but this is a mixed report.’

    Brian Shortsleeve, MBTA’s acting general manager 

    During the meeting, fiscal control board member Lisa Calise asked officials if the absentee rate had improved. Vincent Reina, the MTBA’s director of employee availability, said it had declined since the winter of 2015.

    “Even a small percentage is significant dollars for us,” Reina said in an interview.

    But figures later provided to the Globe showed the MBTA is on track for absentee rates to increase from last fiscal year, numbers that hadn’t been presented to the board during the update.

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