Among the most pressing issues for the MBTA is somewhere most riders will never visit — nine decrepit, overcrowded bus garages. If the agency is ever going to expand its fleet of 1,000 buses, it will need a lot more space to put them.
Spread across the region, the garages were the focus of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s governing board on Monday. Officials outlined plans to update facilities so they can charge electric buses and adopt improvements to working conditions that mechanics have long complained about.
But as the MBTA prioritizes improvements to its bus network, the hunt for space to store and maintain new vehicles may be the most significant initiative for riders.
“We really need to begin thinking about what we can do to add service,” said MBTA deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville. “Our bus facilities are outdated and all are operating at a point where they’re over capacity. So the idea of adding peak service has always been limited by that.”
The MBTA could add bus garages or expand existing ones. To start, the agency plans to expand its garage in South Boston and also hopes to build a new — and much larger — facility in Quincy to replace an existing garage there. However, that will require buying land that could prove competitive; deep-pocketed Amazon, for example, is reportedly eyeing the Quincy location.
The push for more bus space is also touching off a fresh conflict with MBTA workers, who in 2018 successfully fought plans to outsource some maintenance work. But after the MBTA late last year agreed to buy 60 new buses, transit officials suggested they could outsource maintenance and operation of the new fleet to private vendors that would use their own garages.
The MBTA has the right to outsource some work under its 2018 labor agreement. But union representatives say the agency is not abiding by another part of the contract, a pledge to improve working conditions at bus garages. In December, workers complained to the MBTA’s board about several problems at the facilities, including rodent infestations, poor heating, large cracks in the floor, and drainage issues.
On Monday, the union’s business representative said it would be unfair for the MBTA to outsource maintenance work without improving conditions at the garages.
“I would ask you that, until you can follow through on your commitment and honor our contract, that you abandon that idea,” said Michael Vartabedian, who added that it would be unfair to judge the workers on the performance of an older bus fleet against third-party vendors working exclusively on new buses.
The MBTA acknowledged that it is lagging on plans to improve conditions at the facilities. Gonneville said the agency recently assigned a staff member to oversee a series of improvements, including new equipment and better HVAC systems.
Agency officials said they will continue to consider the merits of outsourcing maintenance duties for the 60 new buses, which are meant to add to rush-hour service as soon as late 2020. However, they said they could probably squeeze the buses into existing garages with a small amount of infrastructure work.
MBTA officials said there were benefits and drawbacks to both plans. Outsourcing, for example, may save money but would delay the arrival of the new buses to service by at least a few months.
Also Monday, environmental advocates urged officials to equip garages to handle future fleets of buses that may no longer rely on diesel fuel.
“It is crucial that all maintenance garages are planned and designed to service, store, and charge electric buses and next-generation technologies,” said Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.