T privatization proposals stir labor protest against Pioneer

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/25/t-privatization-proposals-stir-labor-protest-against-pioneer/

Gov. Charlie Baker could use his temporary power to privatize bus maintenance at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and take other steps to save as much as $122 million a year, according to the Pioneer Institute, whose advocacy for such measures has drawn the ire of public unions and did so again this week.

Even as the Boston-based nonprofit research organization – which was once led by Baker – was putting out its latest T examination, members of the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589 picketed its downtown offices Wednesday morning.

“We cannot and will not sit idly by while the Baker administration and the Kock-funded Pioneer Institute use us as scapegoats for the MBTA’s problems so they can steal the public’s transportation system and hand it over to their rich cronies and contributors,” the Carmen’s union said on its website. It was apparently referring to David Koch, who with his brother Charles runs Koch Industries and supports a large number of conservative organizations.

“We are not intimidated,” Pioneer responded in a press release later in the day. “What matters to Pioneer is that we keep the urgency on the T’s governance, operational, maintenance and financial reforms so that, as soon as humanly possible, riders will have dependable, on-time service.”

The T is struggling with a widening budget deficit which will reach $170 million, including debt-service costs, for the current fiscal year, the transit system’s Fiscal and Management Control Board said Tuesday in a report. It said the system’s budget “is broken,” with an annual deficit projected to hit $427 million by 2020.

Pioneer said its analysts have found some possible answers to the T’s dilemma, partly relying on a three-year window for privatization that lawmakers opened in the state’s current budget. It temporarily exempts the agency from the so-called Pacheco Law that effectively limits using contractors to provide state services. The unusual move by Democrats who control the state legislature followed a severe winter that saw prolonged outages of T services.

“These are three steps that the MBTA should be taking right now, which save between $103 and $122 million a year,” Pioneer said about its latest recommendations.

Those steps include privatizing bus maintenance to save almost $50 million a year. Among other things, the report suggests that a reduction of 140 maintenance jobs (out of 710 in the bus division) would be needed to bring costs in line with comparable services in other cities.

The report also urges the T to revamp a custom transportation service called The Ride, saying it could save as much as $82 million a year on average for the next six years by following a model used by the state Human Services Transportation Office. Among the changes suggested by Pioneer are making vendors supply their own vehicles, providing incentives for making multi-passenger trips, and letting the T control vehicle dispatching and ride coordination.

Pioneer documents what it sees as some of the reasons for the T’s fiscal woes. For instance, it says The Ride’s average trip costs almost $50, while the comparable state service comes in at under $18 a trip. The Ride is run under contract by three vendors who use T-supplied vehicles and control dispatching, Pioneer said, while the state system employs regional transit authorities which hire brokers to control dispatching among more than 350 transport providers, mainly local cab companies, that operate their own vehicles.

The state service also provides incentives for car-pooling, with a result that more than one person is aboard in almost two-thirds of its rides. By comparison, the T service’s average ride carries no more than one passenger. As Pioneer notes, the T’s vendors, which control dispatching and scheduling, “make more money by avoiding shared rides.”

On maintenance costs, the report cites the system’s high bus upkeep costs compared with systems in “peer” cities, including Washington, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

“Of 425 bus transit agencies in the US in 2013, the MBTA had the highest bus maintenance cost per hour of bus operation,” Pioneer said. The study shows that the T’s high rate chiefly stems from labor, pointing to maintenance costs per mile driven that are almost twice as high as those of five peer systems, and labor hours spent on maintenance that are almost two-thirds higher, based on Federal Transit Administration data.

Pioneer says the T has almost 60 percent more maintenance staff than peer systems. To reach parity with the Washington metro bus system’s maintenance staff level, for instance, the T would need to cut about 140 jobs, according to the study. Pioneer recommends putting bus maintenance out to bid – farming it out to an independent contractor, in other words.

Finally, Pioneer says a review of administrative functions and reducing administrative staff could save as much as $3 million a year, money that could be redirected to services.

Ted Bunker can be reached at [email protected]

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