Future for MBTA parts warehouse a subject of debate
By State House News Service | August 19, 2016, 6:38 EST
STATE HOUSE — MBTA inventory workers giving a tour around the central warehouse earlier this summer paused for a moment, moving to the side of an enclosed alley to make room for a forklift passing through.
The hallway is the only indoor connection between the loading dock and the main warehouse, according to workers there. After about 15 seconds of beeping and whirring tires, the forklift was clear and the tour resumed.
Those seconds add up, and a bottlenecked passageway doesn’t begin to describe the T’s warehousing woes.
Management and union officials agree the MBTA’s warehouse facility does not resemble a modern inventory operation. [Photo: Andy Metzger/SHNS]
Both the T workers and the transit agency’s management agree that the Everett facility is inadequate to efficiently supply parts for the T’s more than 1,000 buses and more than 600 trolleys and subways built over a span of decades. The warehouse also stockpiles parts for T facilities.
“This is not Home Depot or Lowes where nuts and bolts are all grouped in one aisle, filters in another. It’s wherever there’s room for something,” John Hoffman, a roving stockman and 15-year employee of the central warehouse in Everett, told the News Service. Hoffman said the roughly 75-year-old building was not built to be a warehouse and the single work shift five days a week doesn’t cover the T’s supply chain needs. He said, “As a worker bee here on the floor, little or none of that has to do with me. It’s because of the way the system has been set in place for decades.”
MBTA management, installed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, and the employees who are represented by the Boston Carmen’s Union differ over how to improve the current system.
MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve, who is now the acting general manager, favors outsourcing, contracting with companies such as DHL, XL Logistics, or Penske to gain their expertise and economies of scale.
“If we partner with them we get the benefit of all that,” Shortsleeve told the News Service. He said, “I want the T focused on its core mission, which is moving people around.”
The T sought proposals from the industry, which are due in early September, and a shortlist of finalists for the work is expected later that month.
Knowledge of the parts is essential, according to the warehouse workers, who moved up to their positions from other jobs in the transit agency.
“You’re coming in literally and saying, ‘Can you help me find this?'” said Ron Charon, a manager of the warehouse.
The T has 35,000 different types of parts, according to Michael Keller, the Boston Carmen’s Union delegate for equipment maintenance. That count doesn’t include spare parts housed at a Medford facility, he said.
Union officials argue the T should invest in a modern warehouse facility and add shifts so it can be staffed more regularly.
Charon told the News Service that years ago the T had two fleets of buses that were simpler and similar to one another, but since then the diversity of vehicles has expanded to about 11 or 12 bus fleets and the dollar-value of the inventory has doubled.
Whoever is tasked with improving the T’s inventory management will have a major task ahead of them.
Lack of round-the-clock staffing, no scheduled delivery trucks specifically for the department, an inadequate facility and other factors add up to a dysfunctional parts system that takes as much as three and a half days for a part to make it from the central warehouse to a maintenance garage, according to the T, which brought in consultant Ernest Miller, managing partner at Optio Tempore.
Workers said that in an emergency, a part could be retrieved from the warehouse at any time.
With a 71 percent accuracy rate of existing inventory at its central warehouse, years’ worth of surplus parts, and a disorganized facility, the T’s warehouse operations presented a unique case to the consultant.
“I’ve never seen numbers like these,” Miller told reporters. He said, “There wasn’t one single process that was functioning well.”
A budget rider last year gave the T three years to privatize services without the usual lengthy process of seeking approval from the state auditor confirming that outsourcing will save money and not result in reduced service.
Seeking to protect its members, the Boston Carmen’s Union, which includes warehouse workers among the 4,100 T employees it represents, proposed lower-than-usual wage hikes in exchange for an agreement not to outsource certain T jobs. The proposal, which the union estimated would save $24 million, would not bar outsourcing the central warehouse.
If the inventory is outsourced, warehouse employees could leave the job – seen as a plum post – and take up a new position in the 6,500-employee transportation authority.
“You aspire to a job like this because a bus driver is, to me, the toughest job at the MBTA,” said Hoffman.
The warehouse is located on a big lot housing repair facilities for subways and buses with husks of trolleys rusting outside. On a visit earlier this summer, some parts lay scattered about, including a bus piece on the floor of the warehouse. Without their own dedicated truck for scheduled deliveries, the warehouse workers piggyback on the delivery truck used by the repair shops.
Winding its way through the short stacks and narrow hallways, the forklift set down a box of parts bound for Wellington on the bed of the truck, which held train equipment loaded by one of the nearby repair shops.
— Written by Andy Metzger
Copyright State House News Service