BOSTON (CBS) – For possibly more than 30 years, some managers at the MBTA have enjoyed a perk that’s been hidden from the public: Unmarked take-home cars that are owned by construction companies.
The I-Team discovered the cost to taxpayers is almost impossible to determine because the vehicles have been buried in the overall price of multi-million dollar projects.
Now, leaders at the cash-strapped agency say the secret car program is coming to a screeching halt. Less than a week after the I-Team started asking questions, the MBTA returned all 23 vehicles to construction companies.
Cars discovered all over Boston area
After getting a tip, the I-Team started checking the homes of MBTA employees who work in the Design & Construction Department.
The I-Team spotted new Ford Escapes in Quincy, Canton, Melrose, Holliston and Wayland; Toyota Highlanders in Hyde Park and up in Derry, N.H.; even a Ford F-150 parked in a driveway in Hanover.
License plates on the vehicles traced back to construction companies.
The I-Team then requested several contracts for current MBTA projects and found the vehicle provision buried in the lengthy documents. The requirement stipulated the vehicles were for the “exclusive” use of MBTA personnel and would remain with the agency until 60 days after completion of the project.
And even though the contract said all vehicles should be painted with MBTA logos, every car the I-Team observed was completely unmarked.
“It seems like a very shifty operation,” said Mary Connaughton, a fiscal watchdog with the Pioneer Institute. “There are no separate payments for these vehicles. It’s all bundled into the contract price, so there is absolutely no transparency.”
Vehicles returned after I-Team questions
Early on a January morning, the I-Team watched a director of administration and finance hop in his Ford Escape at his Quincy home. The employee could board the Red Line a few blocks from home and ride it into work for free.
Instead, he dropped off his daughter at school and fought rush-hour traffic to get downtown.
And why not? Gas, insurance and maintenance costs were all covered by the contractor, while the MBTA picked up the tab for the $625 monthly parking pass at a private downtown garage.
“That’s a good deal if you can get it,” Connaughton said. “But not on my dime, not on the taxpayers’ dime.”
After the I-Team approached a couple of employees to inquire about the vehicles, the MBTA responded quickly. Within several days, an agency spokesman said all 23 contractor-owned vehicles had been returned.
MBTA leadership making changes to save taxpayers money
MBTA General Manager Brian Shortsleeve told the I-Team the contractor-owned vehicles are another example of trying to change “decades of mismanagement” at the agency.
In the case of the take-home vehicles, Shortsleeve said the program raised immediate concerns when he heard about it.
“I do agree with you. Using unmarked cars from contractors from a transparency standpoint is not appropriate,” he said. “We certainly owe it to our riders and taxpayers to run the T in the most transparent way we can.”
Shortsleeve said the perk was flagged in November by a new capital delivery manager, who was offered a car and a downtown parking pass. A short time later, the MBTA ended the practice of putting the vehicle provision in its contracts, he said.
Since the vehicles are technically paid for through the duration of the contracts, the MBTA is talking to contractors about receiving possible credits. However, nine of the vehicles were slated to be returned in April anyway.
Moving forward, Shortsleeve said the MBTA is pursuing a partnership with ZipCar to reduce its fleet and better manage how vehicles are used.
“When we see the potential misuse of cars or we see areas where we believe we could save money, we are going to move on it very quickly,” he told the I-Team.