BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker urged lawmakers on Monday to approve an overhaul of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which suffered several service outages during snowstorms last winter, saying state residents deserve “reliable, predictable and affordable” public transit.
The Republican governor testified on Monday before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which is considering a bill he filed after massive breakdowns on the MBTA during a winter of record-setting snow. A task force appointed by the governor pointed to a “pervasive organizational failure” at the T, which operates the nation’s oldest subway system.
Baker sought to reassure lawmakers who have expressed skepticism about some of the bill’s key provisions, including creation of a financial control board with broad powers to manage all aspects of the agency for the next three to five years.
The measure also would free the MBTA from some of the restraints of the Pacheco Law, which blocks the state from privatizing certain government functions.
“We want to fix the T,” Baker said. “I do not want to privatize the T. I don’t want to slash services. I don’t want to lay off hundreds of T employees. I don’t want to drive people off the T by making fares unaffordable.
“What I do want to do is give the people of Massachusetts … a reliable, predictable, affordable public transportation system,” Baker told legislators.
The five-member control board would consist of three appointees of the Republican governor and one each by the House speaker and Senate president, both Democrats. Baker said it would be modeled after a control board that stabilized Springfield’s finances after the state’s third-largest city teetered on bankruptcy.
The Carmen’s Union, which represents more than 4,000 MBTA workers, strongly opposes changes in the anti-privatization law or a weakening of its binding arbitration rights.
Eliminating the Pacheco Law “will only open the door to Big Dig era abuses when private companies and their CEOs were making huge profit off taxpayers,” union president James O’Brien said in prepared testimony before the committee.
O’Brien cited examples of T management already being able to hire private firms, including the ongoing reconstruction of the Government Center station.
If given broader privatization authority, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack suggested, the MBTA might use it to contract out late-night service or hire private fare agents to help crack down on fare evasion on commuter rail trains.
Some lawmakers have suggested that a reconstituted Massachusetts Department of Transportation board chaired by Pollack would have many of the same powers as the proposed control board. But the administration argues the T’s problems are so profound that a dedicated governing body is needed, at least temporarily.
A coalition of Massachusetts business leaders on Monday threw its support squarely behind Baker’s proposal, citing the economic importance of the MBTA to the state.
The business leaders said the T badly failed a “stress test” this winter, causing many area businesses to lose sales and productivity and many workers to lose wages.
“It’s 75 degrees out, but no one has forgotten what happened in February,” said Jim Clocke, executive vice president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
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