Facing pressure, Baker will seek $50 million for MBTA to speed the pace of maintenance
Facing an uproar over public transit funding, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that he’s seeking a one-time, $50 million infusion for the MBTA — and is considering scheduling “more aggressive” service shutdowns — to help the agency speed the pace of maintenance and other projects.
The package of changes, some of which require approval from the Legislature, comes two weeks after a devastating derailment on the Red Line caused widespread delays and shoved the financing of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority back under the public microscope.
Baker’s plan immediately drew skepticism from business leaders, transit advocates, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who suggested it may be too short-sighted.
Baker, who has long argued the T didn’t need more money to fund upgrades to its aging infrastructure, dismissed the notion that the request is an admission the beleaguered agency doesn’t have enough resources.
“The biggest problem the T has is finding the time to do the work,” Baker said at a press conference, adding that he visited the site of the June 11 Red Line derailment last week and was struck by the complexity of the repairs. He said he wants officials to seek out time for projects as quickly as possible. “We want them to be as aggressive as they can be.”
Baker’s $50 million proposal, which he filed Tuesday, would come from an expected budget surplus. If approved by lawmakers, the money would fund a new team of engineers, bus operators, maintenance workers, and outside contractors to help do inspections, provide service during shutdowns, and complete capital projects, officials said.
State and transit officials said they’re exploring whether to close parts of the system for longer periods at night and on weekends to allow contractors more time to complete their work. They also raised the possibility of disrupting service during the workday, too, to allow for more time for maintenance and construction — a step Baker administration officials said they have largely wanted to avoid.
How painful those service disruptions might be is still unclear. MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said the T will release an updated schedule “shortly” showing service shutdowns through the summer, but he indicated it wouldn’t be before Monday, when a set of fare hikes is scheduled to go into effect.
Several Green Line branches and the Orange Line are already scheduled for disruptions on weekends, and in some cases, weeknights, over the coming months to accommodate work.
Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said the new approach will include asking contractors about moving up their timelines of various projects.
“What if we gave you bigger work windows, so you can get on the tracks earlier in the evening, stay later in the morning, work more weekends, maybe even consider workday closures?” Pollack said, speaking rhetorically.
Baker has long touted the T’s five-year, $8 billion capital plan — its largest ever and one that officials promise will inject stability into an unreliable system. He also said as recently as this month that he believed the system was heading in the “right direction,” including with more than $2 billion tabbed for the Red and Orange lines alone.
Tapping surplus funds would offer another avenue. Tax revenues were tracking $952 million above projections one month before the fiscal year closes on June 30, though several hundreds of millions of dollars of that would automatically be transferred to the state’s emergency reserves.
But DeLeo, the House’s top elected official, said Tuesday that an immediate infusion only works amid a larger debate about transportation funding.
“The infrastructure and operational needs of the MBTA go well beyond a one-time revenue solution,” DeLeo said in a statement, adding that the House plans to take up a tax package this fall to help fund transportation. “Fixing the MBTA requires a long-term strategic plan as well as the long-term dedicated annual revenue to implement it.”
In the two weeks since the Red Line train derailed and traveled for one-third of a mile off the tracks, MBTA officials have faced near-daily criticism, on everything from the pace of improvements to plans to forge ahead with fare hikes.
The debate has drawn in Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a Baker ally, who said the city should have a hand in overseeing the agency, and several Cambridge-based businesses have joined the fray, charging this week that the state’s public transit system is in a “state of emergency.”
It’s many of those same players who questioned Tuesday whether Baker’s recommendations go far enough.
“Yes, we need those. And you need a much larger investment in the system,” said C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association. “Thirty million here, $50 million there is not going to give us the comprehensive solution we need.”
Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, said many riders are willing to choke down planned disruptions if it means the system will improve. But the T will need to be “crystal clear” about what those projects will actually do.
“It also speaks to a broader issue at the T,” Dempsey said of the funding request. “That’s an acknowledgment here by the administration: It’s not just on the capital side where there are challenges, but also on the operating side.”
As part of Tuesday’s announcement about “accelerated capital planning,” Baker said he’ll also propose changes in an upcoming transportation bond bill that would give the T more flexibility in reaching private contracts but could also cause friction with lawmakers and labor leaders.
Among the proposals is one allowing the T to hire on-call contractors for capital projects under $500,000 to do “repetitive” work, such as repairs at stations and platforms. Another change would give the T the ability to contract with a private company for all aspects of a capital project, from design to providing maintenance. Both would need legislative approval.
Baker said the proposals don’t include again exempting the T from the so-called Pacheco Law, which he won for a three-year period to allow the T to more freely outsource work to private contractors.
Helping fuel the frustration around the T have been lingering questions about the Red Line, whose riders will face delays through the summer and possibly beyond.
T officials have said they are still trying to determine what caused the derailment that plunged the heavily traveled line into chaos. Investigators have been focused on the 50-year-old train car after determining human error or track-related problems were not to blame.
But beyond the probe, lengthy repairs remain. The T also has awarded a $113 million contract to replace all the signals on the Red Line with a new digital system — a project officials say they now intend to complete in 2020, instead of 2021.