The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has made progress since the nightmarish winter of 2015, when the agency responded to horrendous weather with a catastrophic performance. But progress is relative, given the depths to which the MBTA sank, and the transit system still has plenty of fixing to do. Some problems are political, others logistical or historically ingrained. Most come down to money — there’s not enough, and what there is often gets spent unwisely. There’s no miracle solution to the MBTA’s well-documented funding woes, but here are a couple of suggestions that would save more than a few dollars.
The first one is easy: The agency should stop counting cash. A new audit report by an outside security consultant found the MBTA spends nearly twice as much as necessary on collecting and counting coins and bills, and it’s not getting much for the money — $10 million a year for a staff of 78. The consultant, Shellie Crandall, was shocked by what she saw inside the T’s money room in Charlestown — a place that’s responsible for handling $200 million. Crandall’s report detailed broken security cameras, vault doors that were duct-taped, and undertrained employees who didn’t have enough work to keep them busy for an entire shift.
The kicker: Outdated computer equipment makes reconciling totals an impossibility. Blame for this mess of ineptness and inefficiency can be spread among management — union and nonunion — as well as the cash collection workers themselves. Governor Charlie Baker is pushing to privatize some of the MBTA’s operations, and the cash-counting department should be high on the list. As Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack told the Globe’s Nicole Dungca, “The T is in the business of moving people, not money.” Farm out collecting and counting duties to a company that specializes in it, at a cheaper price.
Here’s another, more complicated, idea that could yield a significant return: Fold the MBTA’s troubled pension fund into the larger and healthier state fund for retirees. A merger would save on management expenses and increase efficiency. It also might prevent the widening of a gap between the T fund’s assets and what the agency is on the hook to pay out. The state fund — Pension Reserves Investment Management, or PRIM — has more than $60 billion in assets, compared with just $1.5 billion under the MBTA fund’s management. But it’s performance, not size, that’s the central issue. Over the last 15 years, the MBTA fund hasn’t done nearly as well as PRIM, which oversees retirement money for state employees, public teachers, county workers, and many communities. A study released last month by the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute — a persistent MBTA critic — found that the pension plan would be better off by $260 million if it had been part of PRIM between 2005 and 2014. It didn’t help that the MBTA pension lost $25 million in a 2012 hedge fund investment that was more like a Ponzi scheme — and didn’t disclose the disaster for more than a year.
The fund can’t continue operating this way. Officials have to improve annual returns and reduce expenses if the pension is to remain viable. A new report from the T’s chief administrator, Brian Shortsleeve, estimates that the system’s unfunded obligation has increased by $129 million since last year, to $944 million — or higher. That means the T now has only 58 percent of the $2.6 billion that retirees are entitled to eventually collect. Generally, warning flags go up when a retirement fund has less than 60 percent of what it will one day need.
Why does this matter to anyone who isn’t planning on cashing T retirement checks? Because taxpayers’ money, at least $70 million annually, is used to help prop up the MBTA plan, which sends pensioners about $187 million a year. The more money that the T is forced to invest in keeping the pension plan afloat, the less it will have to spend on improving your daily commute.
Shortsleeve and Baker like the idea of putting MBTA pension money under PRIM’s management. It won’t be easy. The T’s plan is run as a private trust, even though it accepts public money. Transferring funds would require legislation, and probably a vote by the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589 — both formidable hurdles. But it’s time to get the process underway, before that unfunded obligation balloons to the point of exploding. MBTA retirees aren’t getting any younger, but they are living longer. They’ll expect to keep getting paid.