The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on Friday began formally seeking private companies to take over some bus maintenance work, a plan that has drawn sharp union opposition.
The T plans to ask private bidders to take over three of its smaller bus maintenance facilities, one each in Lynn, Quincy, and Boston, which account for about 21 percent of the T’s 470-person maintenance workforce.
The agency’s six larger bus facilities would remain publicly operated, creating what MBTA interim general manager Steve Poftak called a “hybrid” model of bus maintenance. Privatizing the smaller facilities would help bring down overall bus maintenance costs and allow the T to learn new practices from the private sector, he said. Contracting out work at the three garages could save the T upwards of $12 million annually, the agency said.
The Machinists Union Local 264, which represents the maintenance workers, has rallied against the plan. On Friday, the union called the contracting process “a corporate takeover of core MBTA services.”
The machinists are part of a coalition of other T unions that last week launched an advertising and public relations campaign, featuring bus maintenance employees who say they voted for Governor Charlie Baker and now feel betrayed.
Congressman Joseph Kennedy III has been among the union’s allies. In an interview with the Globe, Kennedy said that although it may make sense for the MBTA to contract some services, bus maintenance should not be among them. “When it comes to the machinists and the maintenance of buses, that sort of seems like a core competency to me,” he said.
Poftak noted that the state’s other public transit authorities contract with private bus maintenance companies, and that the private company would “almost certainly” hire union labor. The private contractor may be required to give hiring preference to T workers who lose their jobs as a result of the contract, he said.
The MBTA plans to award the 3.5-year contract by late fall or early winter. Poftak said the initiative is part of a three-pronged strategy to lower bus maintenance costs, which totaled $132 million in the 2016 fiscal year.
The T says it has already cut $12 million in annual costs by limiting overtime and changing procurement strategies. The T also hopes to see annual savings of $3.6 million by renegotiating its contract with the maintenance workers’ Local 264 union.
The MBTA has said its bus maintenance costs are the highest in the nation. The union argues that its wages are appropriate given Boston’s cost of living, and defends its members’ work by saying MBTA buses go longer between breakdowns than other systems’ vehicles.
In 2015, the MBTA was granted a three-year waiver from state law, giving it more power to privatize services. It has since sent a few operations to the private sector, including money handling and warehouse management.
In December, the T’s largest union, representing bus and train operators, agreed to forgo wages in a new contract; in exchange, the T said it would not privatize most of the union’s jobs.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com.