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Disappointed Guv worried about ‘pretend’ Senate MBTA fixes

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By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — Charged up over plans by Senate Democrats to reject many of his MBTA reforms, a disappointed Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday said he hopes the Senate will not merely “pretend” to find a fix for the troubled transit agency.

“I’m especially disappointed by the fact that after this winter and after all we learned this winter there seems to be a recalcitrance or an unwillingness to make the kinds of changes that are necessary to truly fix the T,” Baker told the News Service after a speech in the Back Bay and before he jetted off to Washington D.C. for meetings.

On Tuesday Senate Transportation Chairman Tom McGee, a Lynn Democrat who also chairs the Massachusetts Democratic Party, rejected several of the Republican governor’s reform proposals, including one that received partial approval in the House.

McGee said the administration will have all it needs to fix the MBTA if lawmakers make some minor reforms while keeping a schedule of increasing financial contributions from the state to the transit system. Those other reforms are a four-member expansion of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board and the installation of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, a Baker appointee, as chairwoman with direct authority to hire the MBTA’s next general manager.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee’s budget proposal did not include a provision adopted by the House that would suspend for five years procedures required before the state can privatize any major service. McGee also rejected Baker’s plan to lift the statutory cap on fare hikes and create a temporary fiscal and management control board tasked with righting the transit agency.

“We would like to fix the T. We are willing to own the responsibility for fixing the T, but if the Senate is not willing to make the decisions and to support the reforms that are required to fix the T, then that’s their call,” Baker told the News Service after speaking to Samaritans, a group that runs a suicide-prevention hotline. “But I’ve been disappointed by the rhetoric.”

Extreme winter weather brought some rail services to a halt and coincided with the surprise resignation of former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott. System failures spurred advocates and officials to focus on structural changes to public transit in eastern Massachusetts, with policymakers giving another look at management and financing options.

After hearing from a task force, Baker proposed as a centerpiece of his plan empowering a special control board to lead the MBTA while freeing it from limits on fare hikes and privatization.

McGee called Baker’s proposal, which is pending before the Democrat-controlled Transportation Committee, a “mistake” that would move the system in “the wrong direction.”

Baker said Wednesday he would be interested in hearing an alternative proposal from the Senate.

“We took the advice of a very experienced and diverse panel to make our recommendations, and I think those recommendations are the right ones, and if the Senate and the senator want to fix the T they’re going to have to do more than just talk about reform. They’re going to have to propose it,” Baker said. He said, “If they have other thoughts in mind, I’d love to hear them. But just talking about reform without actually proposing any and opposing any significant reforms at all is not reform.”

McGee has repeatedly touted the value of continued conversation about the state’s transportation system, and plans to hold another hearing on the governor’s legislation with his committee co-chairman, Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.

Straus told the News Service the Transportation Committee will report out a “comprehensive” MBTA package and he said the “key” reform needed is to give the governor more direct control over the management of the MBTA.

McGee did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday morning.

Sen. Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, said more funding is needed.

“We need a serious investment in transportation,” said Donnelly. He said, “He can talk about reform all he wants but I would love to hear from them on revenue, also. And that doesn’t mean increasing fares with some of the poorest people that need to make sure that they use the T to get back and forth from work. That isn’t the answer.”

Baker’s transportation system fixes are encountering more turbulent legislative waters than his state budget fixes and his early retirement program.

“I’m hopeful that the Senate recognizes that the MBTA is an organization in significant stress and that in the end the Senate is not going to try to pretend saying the word reform a lot without actually doing any reform is going to give our administration or anybody else the tools that they need and that we need to truly fix the T,” Baker said.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito called the Senate budget sections related to MBTA management reform “part of the process,” before calling the T an agency “in crisis.”

“We feel that a control board and the Pacheco recommendations and the oversight are what we need as tools to fix the T. Maybe there are some that don’t feel the system is broken, but people we talk to every day that ride and use the T, the million riders, feel that service should be better and we want the tools to fix it,” Polito told the News Service.

Asked why she thought McGee was so opposed to a control board, Polito said, “You’d have to ask Senator McGee.”

Senators have until Thursday at 5 p.m. to file amendments to the budget, and the full chamber will take up the annual spending bill next week.

Matt Murphy contributed reporting.

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