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SCOT LEHIGH

More MBTA reform needed

Governor Baker testified earlier this month in support of the MBTA overhaul bill at the state House.
Governor Baker testified earlier this month in support of the MBTA overhaul bill at the state House.(Jessica Rinaldi/globe staff)

MBTA reform, those with elephantine memories may recall, was a hot topic back during the cold of winter. But it’s May now, and on Beacon Hill, winter’s urgency is fading like a New Year’s resolution to lose — excuse me, deflate by — 20 pounds.

Governor Baker wants a fiscal control board, the end of binding arbitration, and freedom from the Pacheco Law, which makes it difficult to extend service or save money by contracting out for services and repairs.

To its credit, the House has offered a five-year Pacheco reprieve and is at least mulling the control board. The Senate, however, is somewhere between reluctant and retrenched.

Last week, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Senate Transportation Chairman Tom McGee talked as though the control board and Pacheco reform were on a one-way ride to nowhere. On Tuesday, Rosenberg walked that back some.

“We did not handle the messaging well,” he told members of the Globe editorial board. “The chair has very strong feelings, but he was speaking for himself. . . . I was supporting the chair principally on what we put in the budget.” (What the Senate principally put in the budget was a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal.) When it comes to further reforms, Rosenberg said, the body needs more time to “vet and process” them.

OK, but when it wants to, the very same Senate can act with expedition. On Tuesday morning, Rosenberg and Senators Michael Rodrigues and Ben Downing explained an innovative plan to redirect a scheduled $140 million income tax cut in a way that would give a significant boost to hard-pressed families. Filed last week, that amendment was added to the Senate budget during debate on Tuesday afternoon.

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We haven’t seen the same Senate focus or ingenuity on the MBTA. A temporary control board worked well in rescuing Springfield. Why not here? As for the Pacheco Law, it stipulates that contracting out must save money when measured against the cost of public employees working “in the most cost effective manner.” Is there anyone who thinks that aptly describes the T? Or that management currently has the tools to boost the T’s performance to that level?

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It’s disappointing to hear a policy maker as smart as Rosenberg take refuge in well-worn pro-Pacheco talking points, even while conceding that he’s not familiar enough with the matter to discuss the millions saved when the T managed to sidestep Pacheco and outsource a bus-fleet overhaul. Or to see the Senate give so little weight to the recommendations of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Pioneer Institute, and the governor’s bipartisan task force on the T.

The public-policy conversation, Rosenberg asserts, is now at the “prove it” point.

“Prove that we really need to suspend Pacheco,” he said. “Prove that we need a control board.”

One will obviously never prove that to the satisfaction of Senator Marc Pacheco, the law’s proud papa. Or to McGee, whose role as chairman of the state Democratic Party makes it difficult for him to cross organized labor.

But as Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack notes, the broad argument for big change is simple: The T doesn’t do well at a transit agency’s basic functions — running trains and buses on time, performing preventive maintenance, and delivering capital projects.

Further, “prove it” isn’t the appropriate standard here. It’s far too indulgent of the status quo. Policy makers must grant T management the tools that give it the best chance of transforming the troubled transit agency.

Yes, that may require more time. But it will also take more reform resolve than we’ve seen to date.

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Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.