By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — The MBTA needs both reforms and revenues and should quickly be placed under the oversight of a five-member fiscal control board, according to a task force that concluded Wednesday the authority is in “severe financial distress” and would become insolvent without continually increasing funds from state government each year.
The transit authority that provides 1.3 million daily rides in 175 eastern Massachusetts cities and towns uses out-of-date equipment, lacks a viable maintenance and repair plan, suffers from frequent turnover in its leadership ranks, does not properly focus on its customers, and also lacks a “culture of performance management and accountability,” the task force reported.
“The people of Massachusetts deserve a well managed, well run, cost effective transit system. Unfortunately, this report indicates that right now, they do not have one,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference.
Calling for Baker and the state Legislature to act quickly on its ideas, the task force calls for the MBTA to explore “all avenues” to generate its own revenue, including raising and restructuring fares, creating partnerships with universities, increasing advertising and concessions, selling or leasing land and air rights, and reducing fare evasion.
MBTA riders in recent years have been hit with numerous rounds of fare hikes and the task force recommendations are likely to ignite another debate over how much riders can afford to pay and how MBTA fares measure up against transit systems around the country.
While members of the task force said additional revenues will ultimately be needed in the future to support the MBTA’s capital needs, Baker said it would take some time, perhaps several years, before his administration would be willing to ask taxpayers to pay more for the system.
“The panel’s findings make clear, at least to me, that the T’s current way of doing business needs to be remade before it makes sense to invest significant sums of outside money into its operations,” Baker said.
Legislation should be filed by June 30 to create a new fiscal and management oversight board for a three- to five-year period to replace the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board, which currently oversees the MBTA, the task force recommended. Also, citing leadership instability at the T where six general managers have served in the last 10 years, the panel recommended that future general managers be hired by the state transportation secretary, a gubernatorial appointee, and be encouraged through contract terms to remain in the job for at least five years.
The panel recommended that Baker appoint three control board members with one each to be recommended by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. Baker would appoint a chief administrative officer to lead the T while reporting to the proposed control board.
The task force reported that it considered MBTA receivership or abolishing the agency and calling for a successor agency before recommending the fiscal control board approach.
As for the current MassDOT Board, the task force said the Legislature should reconstitute it by increasing the number of board members, naming the transportation secretary as chair, and changing board member terms so that a majority of members serve “co-terminus” with the governor who appointed them. Baker said he has told the current members of the MassDOT board that he would like them to finish their development of fiscal 2016 budget due on April 15 before he continues a conversation with them about whether they should resign.
The panel recommends linking future operating assistance from the state to an assumption of state responsibility for $25.8 million a year in so-called legacy debt and $108 million a year in MBTA debt associated with the Big Dig project.
To address an “enormous backlog of deteriorating infrastructure,” the Legislature should permit the MBTA to use design-build procurement methods that reduce project timelines and exempt the MBTA from certain privatization and contracting restrictions, the task force reported.
On the labor front, the task force recommends the Legislature review the collective bargaining process, including binding arbitration and automatic extensions of contracts under “evergreen” provisions that analysts say expose the T to large retroactive wage increases. MBTA managers need to also develop plans to reduce “excessive” employee absenteeism and fight “abuse” of family and medical leave allowances.
Regarding system expansion, the task force calls for a temporary moratorium on construction spending, except for federally funded projects, until five-year and 20-year capital plans are in place. The task force identifies the Green Line Extension, Assembly Square, and Boston Landing as projects that would be exempt from the moratorium. Aides to Baker say spending related to the planning for expansion of commuter rail service to the South Coast would also continue.
The task force met 18 times since Gov. Baker appointed the panel in late February in the midst of winter service failures throughout the nation’s fifth largest mass transit system. The members of the task force are Jane Garvey of Meridiam Infrastructure, Robert Gittens of Northeastern University, Jose Gomez-Ibanez of Harvard University, Katie Lapp of Harvard University, Brian McMorrow of Massport, and Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan.
“We’re looking forward to working with the administration and the commission on implementing the reforms that they’ve suggested,” interim MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told the News Service. He said, “Yes, we agree with the overall concept of improving efficiency and service delivery. Some of these need to be addressed over time as regulations and/or state law is modified.”
DePaola said there was nothing he disagreed with in the report, and he said most of the information came from the MBTA.
On addressing absenteeism at the T, DePaola said management is willing to work with the unions to improve attendance, while cautioning that federal and state laws regulate some aspects of that dynamic.
DePaola said the MBTA needs to improve its processes for implementing its capital plan and said the T could look to adopt procurement methods that it is currently barred from using.
Matt Murphy, Mike Deehan, and Andy Metzger contributed reporting.