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Baker exploits MBTA’s winter woes to push ill-conceived reform

Governor Baker testified last month in support of an MBTA overhaul bill at the State House.
Governor Baker testified last month in support of an MBTA overhaul bill at the State House.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Summer is here, but Governor Baker is still exploiting Bostonians' frustration with last winter's blizzard breakdown of public transit to push through an MBTA reform package that will jeopardize the service, safety, and affordability of Boston's bus and rail service.

The governor wants to exempt the transit agency from complying with the so-called Pacheco Law, which requires certain standards when considering the privatization of public services.

The administration, which is seeking to outsource late-night bus service and considering "supplementing" track work with private sector workers, bemoans the law, alleging it prevents them from contracting out. These claims are way off base and demonstrate a real lack of understanding of Pacheco, which simply requires the "public interest" to be met when making these decisions.

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Nothing is stopping MBTA from moving ahead with a plan to outsource any part of the operation as long as a cost analysis is done and it is found that the quality of service will not suffer. Ask the riders and taxpayers: what in the world is wrong with that?

The Pacheco Law has served MBTA riders well for more than two decades, helping the Commonwealth avoid the mistakes of other US cities that have moved to privatize transit without considering all of the implications.

In Fairfield, Calif., a private transit contractor was fined 295 times for a total of $164,000 for poor performance, including too many accidents, missed bus runs, and habitually late buses. The contractor, a generous donor to public officials, used its influence to escape the fines and cover up the allegations. Californians would have been well-served by the Pacheco Law's requirement that bidders disclose any political contributions made by contractors.

On Long Island, residents know well how things can go horribly wrong when transit is outsourced. Just six weeks after taking over, a private operator, which had promised it could do the work better and cheaper, slashed service. Within two months the company announced $7 million in service cuts. Both the county and the state had to kick in millions more just to ensure a reduced level of service. Not shockingly, customer satisfaction plummeted. These riders would have been helped by the Pacheco Law's requirement that bidders have a demonstrated ability to provide a high quality of services.

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Outsourcing supporters are right about one thing: the T does indeed have plenty of functions that are already privatized. However, the private sector's performance on MBTA paratransit and commuter rail has been miserable.

In 2012, a private company paid a $7.3 million fine to the Commonwealth after it backed out of a contract with MBTA to operate "The RIDE" once it learned that its bid was significantly lower than competitors. This hurt the T's ability to serve the customers who rely on its services and left all taxpayers footing the bill.

And on the commuter rail side, instead of focusing on fixing service issues, Keolis, the new flavor of the month, is clearly more concerned about its own bottom line, pleading with MBTA to waive nearly $435,000 in penalties imposed on it for late or canceled trains. In just 10 months since taking over the service, it has already paid more than $3.2 million in penalties for failing to deliver on its lofty promises.

It's too bad that paratransit and commuter rail outsourcing predated Pacheco.

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The selling point of these "incredibly open and honest" private transit companies is to provide savings by paying workers less, eliminating pensions, and offering fewer benefits. This is about taking an experienced professional workforce and turning it into a part-time job, not appropriate for a safety-sensitive industry where employees are driving massive vehicles and entrusted with the lives of millions of passengers each day.

If the Legislature supports these ideals, as well as corruption, coverups, higher fares, massive cuts in service, and compromising safety, then exempting MBTA from the Pacheco Law is definitely the right option. Otherwise, the Legislature would be wise to keep this important consumer protection law in place.

Larry Hanley is international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.