MBTA Control Board Seeks 2 More Years For Transit Turnaround

By Bob Salsburg, The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Word that the management control board overseeing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority plans to stay in business for two additional years is being viewed as both a sign of progress and a realization that problems plaguing the nation’s fifth-largest transit system are far from fixed.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democratic-led Legislature created the five-member board in 2015 after an investigation of massive winter breakdowns pointed to “pervasive structural failure” and “severe financial distress” at the T.

The board is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2018, but can ask Baker to let it continue until June 30, 2020.

The panel “is playing a critical role in reforming the MBTA and we welcome their request to extend their governance to continue the MBTA’s turnaround,” Baker told a recent gathering of Boston-area business leaders.

A brief look at the current state of the still-troubled T:

IS IT MORE RELIABLE NOW?

The MBTA appears well on its way to a second consecutive winter without chronic breakdowns. Luck was certainly involved; The winter of 2015-2016 was among the mildest on record and the current winter may not be far behind. But officials also point to a nearly $100 million “winterization” program that included replacing miles of electrified track and purchasing new snow removal gear.

According to the T’s own performance metrics, overall reliability — as measured by on-time arrivals and other factors — has improved over the past two years but remains far from perfect. In February, bus service was reliable 70 percent of the time while subway and commuter rail both averaged 86 percent reliability.

More than half of customers surveyed in January were somewhat, very or extremely satisfied with MBTA service.

While officials are stepping up capital improvement goals, the system remains hindered by aging vehicles and other infrastructure, as underlined by the most recent estimate of a $7.3 billion state of good repair backlog.

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IMPROVED FINANCES

Projections at the time of the board’s creation showed the T facing a $242 million structural deficit in fiscal year 2017, growing to $427 million by 2020.

A February budget report issued by the agency painted a brightening financial picture, while also warning of “tough choices” ahead.

The operating deficit for fiscal 2017, which ends June 30, had shrunk to $50 million, the report said, citing factors including fare increases, higher parking and advertising revenues, and debt restructuring.

Operating expenses have held steady the past two years after growing by an average of 5 percent a year since 2000.

Efforts to reduce employee absenteeism and overtime costs also yielded some initial successes. The report said the T averaged about 2,100 hours of daily overtime in the last calendar year, down from 2,817 hours in 2015.

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FUTURE OF OUTSOURCING

The board has moved to privatize the agency’s money room and warehouse, and is exploring the outsourcing of other operations such as bus maintenance and late-night service. Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft are part of an experiment to supplement the T’s service for disabled riders.

Privatization, however, has been a major flashpoint between management and unions. Some Democratic lawmakers are also uneasy with the outsourcing push, leaving no guarantees the Legislature will extend beyond next year the T’s temporary exemption from the state’s anti-privatization law.

The MBTA’s largest union in December ratified a four-year contract that included concessions on wages and overtime rules, but also offered most union workers protections against outsourcing.

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GREEN LINE EXTENSION

The fate of the long-delayed plan to extend Green Line service to Somerville and Medford remains in question after the board submitted to federal transit officials a less expensive $2.3 billion redesign of the project. Officials are expected to detail soon where they will find approximately $65 million needed to complete financing of the expansion.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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