WE’RE ALL GUILTY OF IT. Something breaks in the house that needs to be replaced by a trained professional, but instead of making the proper investment we glue, tape, and tie pieces back together just to repeat the quick fix in the weeks to come. Then, when you need it the most, it completely breaks down and panic ensues. For me, it’s the leaky pipe under my sink; for some, it’s the refrigerator. For the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it’s the MBTA.
Decades of deferred maintenance at the MBTA culminated in the disastrous breakdown of the agency during the winter of 2014-2015. Our inability to provide public transit in severe winter weather was a complete embarrassment for a state that continuously boasts its status as a leader on innovation and technology hub lists. Panic and public outcry prompted the Legislature to quickly approve Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposals for transportation reform, which involved stabilizing and streamlining the management and administrative functions of the MBTA, so that such crises would not occur in the future.
The reform laid out the governor’s expectations of the MBTA: make smarter financial decisions, eliminate inefficiencies, and revise policies and procedures to allow the MBTA to run at an optimal level. The Legislature approved these reforms, but the privatizing of the MBTA’s core services was not a part of this understanding, nor did we intend to negatively affect the lives of hundreds of hard-working men and women who serve the Commonwealth every single day.
Baker firmly stated, when seeking a temporary suspension of the so-called Pacheco Law, that “this isn’t about privatizing the MBTA.” He said he wanted to fix the T. “I do not want to privatize. I do not want to slash services. I do not want to lay off hundreds of T employees.” Even more recently, in the MBTA’s own report on the Pacheco Law suspension, the agency touted the privatization of other functions that had previously “distracted from more critical customer-facing priorities, diverting time and resources away from core transit functions.”
It’s difficult to imagine a priority more customer-facing and core to a transit agency’s mission than maintaining the vehicles that actually transport the public. Yet, despite these public statements, the governor and MBTA have continued to threaten union jobs in hopes of privatizing the maintenance of MBTA buses.
This past May, I visited the Quincy bus maintenance yard to meet with the mechanics who are at risk of losing their jobs and benefits if the governor succeeds in privatization. The men and women I met were extremely knowledgeable, skilled at their craft, and more than willing to negotiate with the governor. However, these local union members have received endless push back from the governor’s office, as well as the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board in their attempts to have open and transparent negotiations. Changes are being discussed and decisions are being made without any sincere attempts by the MBTA to negotiate with current employees or by first looking in-house when seeking cost-saving measures.
The bus mechanics and machinists have all heard stories from their friends whose jobs were acquired by the French private rail company Keolis and how poor their working environment has become. They don’t want to be next. As a state, we should be focusing on long-term solutions that retain a trained and expert workforce that is properly equipped and fairly reimbursed for its niche skills and important services. It is a disgrace to believe that we need a private company, focused on profits, to come in and fix our mistakes, all while putting the individuals who keep the residents of this state moving every day at risk of losing their livelihoods.
Privatizing the MBTA is a not only a threat to a public entity delivering an essential service, but a threat to the entire middle class. There are scarce opportunities available for hardworking individuals to provide for their families in our current society, and private industries have a long history of reducing pay and revoking benefits essential to everyday life. Massachusetts has always been a leader for our country, and attacking the middle class is not something leaders should stand for. We have the best mechanics and machinists in the country, and we need to retain these highly skilled workers by treating them fairly.
There is no doubt the MBTA needs to make significant changes to run efficiently and to regain financial stability. However, those changes should not be made on the backs of the bus mechanics and machinists whose energy, skill, and sweat are essential to keeping our public transportation system alive.
Quick fixes without well planned investments are what resulted in my leaky pipe becoming an expensive repair. Had I taken the time to make the proper choices and investments when the original problem occurred, I would have saved a lot of money, time, and frustration. Had we taken the time to make the proper choices and investments decades ago, the MBTA would not be in this current situation. We need to learn from those mistakes of the past to properly serve our future. Otherwise, these quick fixes will result in still more breakdowns when we need public transportation the most; except if the governor succeeds in privatization, this time it will be without the proper workforce to clean up ther mess.
John F. Keenan is the state senator for the Norfolk and Plymouth district; chairman of the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets; and a member of the Joint Committee on Transportation.