TOP MBTA OFFICIALS acknowledged on Monday that they have failed to comply with a key provision in a union contract requiring the transit authority to spend $25 million a year upgrading its badly deteriorated bus maintenance facilities.
T officials initially included $24 million spent on a seawall outside the Charlestown bus maintenance facility in the fiscal 2018 calculation, but backtracked after coming under fire from union officials for sidestepping the contract commitment. “How does a seawall help me fix buses?” asked Michael Vartabedian, business agent for Local 264 of the International Association of Machinists.
After removing the seawall expenditures, T officials said they had spent $12 million upgrading the maintenance facilities as of December 2019, which is about $25 million short of where the spending should have been at that point.
“I could certainly explain and give a number of reasons why we are where we are as it relates to spending, but, unfortunately, none of them are really good reasons,” said Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager.
Gonneville said the agency is now trying to get back on track, with $20 million of projects in the pipeline and another $18 million in the early stages of development. He said the T should have $50 million of projects in the works by the end of fiscal 2020.
Vartabedian welcomed the spending, but said the slow ramp-up, which came after criticism from the union, reflects a mindset at the agency. “I don’t think the T took it seriously,” he said.
The T’s contract with the machinists union guarantees the union its existing work and jobs, but allows the T to consider private outside vendors for any expansion. That expansion provision came into play after the T placed an order for 60 new buses to add more peak service and is now trying to decide whether to operate and maintain those vehicles with the T workforce or contract the work out to a private vendor.
T officials, in a presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday, said they are preparing a request for proposals from outside vendors even as they explore the costs associated with moving forward with T employees and facilities.
Brian Lang, a member of the control board who heads a union, said the T shouldn’t contract with an outside vendor until it follows through on its pledge to spend $25 million a year fixing up the existing repair facilities so T workers can compete on a level playing field. He also questioned whether doing the work internally is even being considered seriously.
“Is this seriously being considered or is it a charade?” he asked.
Brian Shortsleeve, one of the control board members, said the T needs to invest in its own facilities and explore contracts with outside vendors. “It’s not an either/or situation,” he said. “We’ve got to do both.”
Kat Benesh, the T’s chief of operations strategy, policy, and oversight, said there are pros and cons to both options. She said turning the work over to an outside vendor could save costs but it would also probably mean the start of new service would be delayed by about four months.
Benesh said the T’s request for proposals will try to attract bidders by picking 10 fairly simple bus routes that start or end in close proximity. Vartabedian bristled at that suggestion, suggesting the T was trying to pick routes that would allow the private operator to avoid running buses for long distances either to the start of the route or back to the garage after the route is completed.
“They’re talking about making it more attractive, but they’re really talking about making it more profitable,” he said.
The control board directed T staff to come back soon with a more balanced review of the two options, but one member, Chrystal Kornegay, said the ultimate decision will probably be left to the next control board since the current one is set to expire in January.