The MBTA could consider bus privatization, and one T leader is not on board

Some MBTA bus routes may be candidates for outsourcing.
Some MBTA bus routes may be candidates for outsourcing. –The Boston Globe

A report issued by the MBTA’s oversight board to the state legislature last week suggested that the transit agency could privatize bus operations and maintenance work, prompting a rebuke from a board member with labor ties on the very same page of the report.

The report was released last week and focuses on ways the T has already, or may soon, contract with private companies to save money. These kinds of partnerships became easier for the MBTA to forge last summer, when — as part of a reform push led by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker that also created the T’s control board — the beleaguered agency won a three-year reprieve from a state law favored by labor unions. The law requires public bodies to undergo a multi-step process in order to privatize a service already being offered by public employees.

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The privatization the T has explored so far pertains to its corporate services, the report said. But on the final page, the board said the MBTA could more effectively rein in costs by targeting “those areas that make up about 85 percent of all costs, namely operations and maintenance.” A paragraph later, the report specifically named the bus system as “an example of an area of opportunity,” saying the handful of bus routes the T already runs through private companies operate cheaper than those run in-house.

Any move to privatize bus services would be met with objection from MBTA labor unions, including the Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents the drivers.

It could also lead to sharp debate among the board members whose names are on the report. At the bottom of the page, the report includes two sentences sounding a note of protest from control board member Brian Lang.

“Note: Not all [Fiscal and Management Control Board] members agree on all board decisions and differing views are a natural part of the process as we collaborate together,” the report’s final lines read. “While he does endorse the rest of the report, Director Lang does not endorse all of the language on this page.”

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Lang, who is a labor leader as president of the hotel and restaurant worker union UNITE HERE Local 26, said in an interview that he draws a stark line between privatizing corporate functions and contracting out the T’s most central services.

“My position is that the core functions of the transportation system are best done in-house. We have much more control and we should exercise that control,” he said. “It’s driven from a place that, with a publicly run operation that’s run efficiently and done in the best interest of the public, we’re better off than having the profit-driven entity running what’s called the public service,” he added.

The T’s commuter rail system has long been run by outside companies, most recently by the American subsidiary of French company Keolis. Lang stopped short of saying the commuter rail should not be privately run, but suggested some of the issues the system faces could be replicated with buses if they followed the same path.

“The train has already left the station when it comes to the commuter rail. So we’re trying to manage it as best we can. And we’re trying a number of different things. It certainly is a challenge,” he said. “We’re better off over the long-term to have complete control of the operations and the maintenance of all of our buses. And the heavy rail and the light rail as well.”

Since their appointment last July, the five members of the T’s control board have often moved in lockstep, though there have been occasional dissenting votes and debates. When talk turns to the T’s unions, Lang has sometimes spoken in favor of collaborative dealings with labor leaders.

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Lang said he is “open to discussing anything,” but that the language of the report suggested some board members are already leaning heavily toward a bus privatization plan.

Privatization has been a hot-button issue at the T since before the board’s formation. The creation of the board, new MBTA management installed by Baker, and the reprieve from the privatization law came in the aftermath of the winter of 2015. That February saw heavy snow sweep an ill-functioning transit system into crisis and reform mode, which brought a heavy focus on the T’s poor financial state.

In the time since, MBTA management has faced plenty of contentious activity, from the Green Line extension’s cost issues to a fare hike to chopping late-night weekend service. But the possibility that MBTA functions would be privatized to cut costs has lingered throughout, drawing consistent union pushback.

As far back as last September, labor leaders called on the control board to resist privatizing some bus routes. More recently, talk of contracting out the T’s cash-counting operation has led to a dispute between the Carmen’s Union and the Baker administration over whether proper protocols were followed by union staff, with the union accusing Baker of fabricating a story about whether sunroofs had been cut into the T’s armored cars.

The T contends its bus driver wages, with the top rate at nearly $36 per hour, are the highest in the nation, and that maintenance costs also near the top of the list.

The T and the Carmen’s Union exchanged statements on the possible bus privatization Tuesday.

“As the MBTA seeks to close a $100 million deficit in its operating budget, leveraging flexible contracting remains a critical tool,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.  “The [control board] and the T’s management team are looking across the entire system at areas where the MBTA can operate more efficiently and more effectively.”

“This report continues to use the same flawed logic that has shaped the MBTA reform debate for months — that outsourcing will somehow fix decades of neglect, woefully insufficient investment and a lack of leadership. It won’t,” Jim O’Brien, the president of the union, said. “The hardworking men and women who keep the system running are being unfairly blamed for years of mismanagement.”

The report’s release was first noted by The Boston Herald over the long Labor Day weekend.

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