BOSTON (AP) — Unionized MBTA employees packed a Statehouse hearing room on Monday as state transportation officials and members of a review panel appointed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker outlined recommendations for shaking up the troubled Boston-area transit system.
The workers oppose changes in work rules or an easing of anti-privatization laws proposed by Baker, and while they were not invited to speak at the oversight hearing of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, several lawmakers also seemed skeptical of a bill calling for a new financial control board — with three of five members appointed by the governor — to oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for up to five years.
Baker asked the review panel to examine the T’s underlying management structure after the system was overwhelmed by a series of powerful winter storms in January and February.
The panel found what it called a “pervasive organizational failure” at the T and a system that was in severe financial stress with operating expenses outpacing revenues, a $6.7 billion maintenance backlog and an inability to spend billions in capital funds allotted to the agency. The report also highlighted absenteeism rates among employees exceeding those of similar U.S. transit agencies, with the average MBTA worker missing 57 days a year, including vacations.
But some Democratic lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of a control board they say would undo years of legislative reforms aimed at uniting the state’s various transportation functions under the single umbrella of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, better known as MassDOT.
“Why would we want to continue to separate the MBTA and commuter rail from the rest of the transportation system?” asked Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House co-chair of the transportation committee.
Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack said in opening remarks at the hearing that the breakdowns caused by the winter storms were symptomatic of much deeper problems the proposed control board would begin to address.
“We share the Legislature’s vision of a well-managed and financially sustainable public transit system,” Pollack said, adding that the recommendations of the review panel were not meant to undermine the goal of a single “integrated transportation system for the Commonwealth.”
Representatives of the MBTA’s Carmen’s Union, who accounted for much of the standing room only crowd at the hearing, applauded when Rep. Daniel Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat, suggested the control board include labor representation.
The members of Baker’s review panel insisted they did not intend to create an adversarial relationship between workers and MBTA management, and said the control board would exist only as a temporary fix to put the T back on track.
“We want this not just to be a good transit system, but we want this to be the best transit system,” said Jane Garvey, a former head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Lawmakers said union members, commuters and others would have a chance to speak at future hearings that would focus squarely on the governor’s bill.
“Everyone needs to be part of the discussion. The riders, the administration, the Legislature, the workers,” said Democratic Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn, the Senate chairman of the transportation committee who has also sounded a note of skepticism in public comments about Baker’s bill.
“We are all in this together,” McGee said.
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