Metro

MBTA control board green-lights 2 major contracts

One of the projects approved by the MBTA control board was the finalization of the plan to extend Green Line trolley service to Somerville.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File
One of the projects approved by the MBTA control board was the finalization of the plan to extend Green Line trolley service to Somerville.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on Monday approved $1.8 billion to improve and expand service, the agency’s biggest spending day in three years and a significant step toward delivering on Governor Charlie Baker’s promise of a more reliable and better-managed transit system.

The MBTA’s fiscal control board, created by the governor and Legislature in the wake of the disastrous winter of 2015, approved the Green Line extension to Somerville and a new fare collection system that will change the technology riders use, eliminating cash payments on vehicles. The agency also approved a $23.9 million contract for work on commuter rail tracks.

The big spending underscores how under the Baker administration the transit agency has taken a two-pronged approach to its finances.

Since the paralysis of 2015, MBTA officials have sought to limit any growth in their operating budget, cutting late-night weekend service and outsourcing some agency functions to the private sector. But at the same time the T has set ambitious goals to dramatically boost spending on capital projects, especially repair and replacement work.

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On Monday, MBTA general manager Luis Ramirez acknowledged that these efforts have not yet been noticeable to riders who routinely encounter unreliable service caused by an ancient signal system, frequent train breakdowns, and other problems. But the projects approved Monday will have a big impact, he said.

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“Much of the internal work to change the T’s culture has gone on largely out of the direct view of the public and our customers,” he said. “It’s those internal, fundamental changes that set the stage for major steps forward, and we’re starting to take some of those steps effective today.”

The T is emphasizing spending on projects that address deferred maintenance and replace aging infrastructure. In 2015, the agency said it would need to spend $765 million a year for 25 years to clear the repair backlog and later set a goal of spending an average of more than $1 billion a year over 15 years.

Last fiscal year, the T increased spending on this work by more than $200 million to $709 million, still below those goals. The agency expects to finish at $795 million this year before moving toward $1 billion in the coming years.

Examples of these repair expenditures include upcoming signal work and the new trains ordered for the Red and Orange lines, a project that began under the previous administration but expanded under the control board.

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The agency, to some activists’ chagrin, has been less enthusiastic about system expansion initiatives that are also considered capital spending. Rafael Mares, a transit advocate with the Conservation Law Foundation, applauded the T for boosting spending on repair work but said that should not prevent the agency from also exploring more ambitious projects such as connecting the Red and Blue lines.

“If you’re just investing in maintaining the system as it currently is, essentially you’re freezing time,” he said. “You probably don’t want to have the same system in place as you did in the ’80s.”

The new Green Line extension contract, in fact, was the result of an effort to cut down on the project’s estimated costs as they veered off course in 2015. While the $1.08 billion contract approved Monday is the largest construction contract in agency history, the project’s costs were once in danger of winding up much higher.

The other contract the T awarded Monday, a $723 million deal for the new fare collection system, will affect both the capital and operating budgets. About half the outlay will pay for installing the system, which will include new fare gates and vending machines, while the other half is for the contractor, Cubic, to maintain and operate the system for 10 years once it is installed.

The T projects it will be cheaper for the vendor to operate the fare system than if the agency did so. The agency expects the new fare system to be in place by 2020, and the Green Line extension is scheduled to open in 2021.

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While increasing capital spending is seen as a way to make service more reliable, some warn that reining in operating expenditures can have negative effects on passengers.

‘If you’re just investing in maintaining the system as it currently is, essentially you’re freezing time.’

— Rafael Mares, Conservation Law Foundation 

The president of the T’s largest union, James O’Brien, said vending machines at subway stations have been breaking down more often since the agency outsourced cash collection to a private contractor, leading to customer frustration. But MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said there “has been no indication of an increase in out-of-service machines,” though he acknowledged record-keeping on the machines’ performance is “sloppy.”

Monday’s two major contract awards made it the largest single day of contract approvals at the T since the agency in 2014 awarded an eight-year, $2.6 billion contract to Keolis Commuter Services to operate the commuter rail system. That contract has since been under heavy scrutiny.

On Monday, Dan Grabauskas, a former MBTA general manager whom the agency recently hired to manage the Keolis contract, provided the board with an update on commuter rail service. He said understaffing of conductors on rail had been a frequent cause of delays this fall.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.