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Putting the MBTA in the governor’s hands

The Green Line and much of the rest of the MBTA slowed to a crawl in the snow.
The Green Line and much of the rest of the MBTA slowed to a crawl in the snow.(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

GOVERNOR BAKER'S report on the MBTA released on Wednesday did not live up to its advance hype — and that's a very good thing. Rather than simply scapegoating absent employees for the T's woes, as early hints suggested that it might, the report instead provided a thoughtful road map for improvements at the agency. The recommendations — especially the call for a gubernatorially appointed financial control board — will not transform the T overnight, but they should form the basis for legislative action.

Baker convened the group after the T's dismal performance this winter, when snowstorms bludgeoned trains and trolleys to the point of systemwide collapse and reminded the region of how much it relies on a functioning transit operation for its economic health. The panel was asked to study why, despite fare increases and growing subsidies from Beacon Hill, the agency was unable to cope with a seemingly basic task like snow removal.

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Most of the panel's conclusions will sound familiar, because they echo previous reports: The T is insolvent, and heavily in debt. It has a huge backlog of unmet maintenance needs for its aging trains and tracks, and even lacks a firm grip on what fixing them all would cost. The agency does a poor job managing big procurement projects like new locomotives and subway cars.

The panel did find labor inefficiencies, like high maintenance costs and a high rate of absenteeism, but by themselves those don't appear to be major causes of the agency's deficit. In the last fiscal year, for instance, the agency spent $3.8 million in overtime to pay workers to replace absent colleagues. That's unacceptable, and hints at a lax management culture overall, but it's still only a tiny percentage of a budget that totals roughly $1.8 billion. By comparison, according to the T's financial reports, it paid $6.5 million in financial service charges.

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The panel recommended a series of minor and major reforms, ranging from a crackdown on employee absenteeism to legislation lifting the cap on fare hikes. It does not call for a total freeze on expansion, as some transit advocates had feared, but suggests holding off on projects that don't have federal or private funding lined up. That's a sensible middle-ground position that would allow projects like the Green Line extension in Somerville to go forward.

The Legislature should be able to act on some of the findings quickly. For instance, the panel recommends changing procurement laws, so that the T can follow the same process as most other public agencies, and commissioning an audit of the system's pension fund.

Others, like ending the current 5 percent-per-year cap on fare hikes and exempting the T from the state's anti-privatization law, may be tougher sells. The anti-privatization law is much too restrictive but is near and dear to the hearts of many legislators, who rely on political support from labor. As for the cap on rate hikes, the Legislature only enacted the rule in 2013, and might reasonably conclude that going back to the old system would risk returning to an old problem. Rather than predictable increases annually, the agency instead raised fares in huge hikes every few years. There may be a need for higher fares, but lawmakers should leave in place some requirement that they be phased in at a rate riders can absorb.

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But while legislators may want to fine-tune some of the panel’s recommendations, one deserves their full support: The financial control board proposed by the panel should be implemented. The board, which the panel says should be staffed with gubernatorial appointees, would take control over the agency. With all members appointed by the governor, the system would provide something the T has always lacked: a clear line of accountability. By allowing Governor Baker to take full control over the agency, he’d become fully accountable for its results. Indeed, perhaps the best safeguard against the T collapsing again is to change its governance structure to make sure that the governor knows he will have to answer directly to voters for its performance.