Here’s An Easy Way For Maura Healey To Improve The MBTA

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Given that former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is the former chief executive officer of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, it’s no wonder why his management of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is about as competent as the American health care system.

Now we have a new governor who will have to try to fix this mess:  Maura Healey.

The MBTA’s reliability problems — highlighted by an Orange Line train bursting into flames last summer — must be a top priority for the incoming Healey administration and the Massachusetts legislature alike. After all, nearly 700,000 people rely on its rail, bus, subway, and ferry services for transportation on an average weekday — primarily in and around Boston. 

To her credit, Healey understands one of the primary problems the MBTA faces:  a lack of personnel. And luckily for her, a simple policy change could help fix the problem.

If Healey wants to improve the MBTA, she should sign an executive order directing the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the MBTA, to drop the unnecessary high school diploma/GED requirement for bus drivers.

A high school diploma certifies that high school’s claim that a student has a certain proficiency in core academic subjects like English, math, science, and social studies. A General Educational Development certification claims that a person has basic competence in such matters even if he didn’t graduate from high school.

But why do you need to know high school math or history to drive a bus?

The MBTA faces a bus operator shortage. How bad is it? The agency cut services to 43 bus routes in late August 2022. Melissa Dullea, senior director of service planning, said the T wanted to hire 750 more bus drivers than it currently had in October 2022, according to Mass Transit Magazine; the MBTA has about 1,900 employees in its bus operations department. Given that bus services primarily operate in urban areas where people are less likely to own cars, that’s a problem; people need these buses to get to school, work, doctor’s appointments, and the grocery store.

The MBTA also needs more bus drivers to improve its rail services.

One of the major challenges MBTA subways face is a lack of time to perform routine maintenance — hence why former Governor Baker’s administration shut down the entire Orange Line for 30 days last summer.

MBTA subway services usually run for 19 to 20 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year with little time between trains (typically under 15 minutes). And for track maintenance, for example, it takes time to get workers and equipment on the tracks to do work; it also takes time to get workers and equipment off the tracks so that trains can operate.

Therefore, the MBTA needs runaround bus services during off-hours to give its maintenance department the time it needs to do the job. However, that’s not going to happen as often as it should at a time when the MBTA is cutting its regularly-scheduled bus routes due to a labor shortage. 

Let’s say the MBTA needed to do some work on the tracks between North Quincy station and JFK UMass on the Red Line. The subway would stop at North Quincy, the passengers would exit the subway, hop on a bus that would take them directly to JFK UMass, and back on the subway for the rest of their trip. If you’ve been on the subway, you may have experienced this situation before. 

Healey could also frame it as a racial justice issue. The high school graduation rates for Asian (95 percent) and white students (92.7 percent) is higher than that of American Indian (83 percent), black (79.9 percent), and Hispanic (74.4 percent) students in the Commonwealth, according to the United Health Foundation. Even when factoring in general equivalency certificates, 7.4 percent of Bay State adults have less than a high school education, according to TownCharts. Since the job pays better ($22.21 per hour) than our state’s $15 hourly minimum wage, becoming a bus operator could appeal to some of these workers. (Not to mention immediate health insurance and a state pension if they stick with it long enough.)

What it really comes down to, however, is that the MBTA needs workers, and what it needs from its bus operators is people who can show up to work on time and drive a bus safely for an allotted period. We shouldn’t care whether or not the bus operator knew that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell when they were 16 years old. To this day, I still have no idea what that even means — but then, I was a National Honors Society student in high school and I don’t know how to drive a bus.

People have unique life circumstances that prevent them from obtaining high school degrees. Also, some people hate school but have no problem working a blue-collar job. Therefore, the government shouldn’t impose arbitrary barriers to entry to better-paying jobs for these people. It should embrace the strength of our workforce, not strangle it because someone doesn’t have an unrelated piece of paper hanging in a frame somewhere.

So if the MBTA eliminated its high school diploma/GED requirement, what would it look for in bus drivers? The other job requirements include:  a valid driver’s license, a clean driving record, and excellent customer service skills. Of note:  MBTA dropped its Commercial Driver’s License requirement in September 2022 and will now cover the cost of obtaining a CDL as a part of training workers for the job; that’s fine, but it’s also a more important portion of the job. 

If someone has a clean driving record, steady employment history, and is capable of passing the Commercial Driver’s License test, that should make that person qualified to operate an MBTA bus. There is no need for unnecessary credentialism — like requiring a diploma that’s irrelevant to the job — to block otherwise-qualified people from driving MBTA buses.

The new Healey administration ought to combat credentialism wherever it exists. Ideally, the state would base its hiring practices on skills instead of on degrees. However, if her administration can even make the change just for bus operators, working people in the Boston area will likely be better off.


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