MBTA OFFICIALS GATHERED in public on Friday to brainstorm a strategic plan for the future, and they quickly concluded that new revenue to fund capital improvements is not the answer to the transit agency’s woes, at least for now.
The revenue question surfaced earlier this week after smoke engulfed an Orange Line train and passengers knocked out windows to escape. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and others said the solution is more revenue, with Walsh calling for a temporary tax to fund a 10-to-15-year plan to overhaul the aging transit system.
Stephanie Pollack, Gov. Charlie Baker’s transportation secretary, said at the T strategy meeting that she didn’t want to downplay the “revenue question,” but felt the agency would have difficulty spending all its existing resources over the next two years. She suggested agency officials work in the other direction, figuring out what work needs to be done, how to accomplish it as quickly as possible, and the cost.
Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, pressed agency officials on how the agency could speed up the current 25-year timetable for reaching a state of good repair. In an interview after the meeting, he said the T is only spending about $850 million of the $1.2 billion budgeted each year on capital projects, largely because the agency lacks the managers and institutional capacity to do more.
“It’s probably going to take us two to three years to climb to the point where we hit the $1.2 billion,” Aiello said. After that, he said, the agency may be equipped to increase its spending, and then a decision will have to be made about new revenues. “It’s dollars we don’t need today but maybe dollars we need four years from now and continuously 10 years after that,” he said.
Aiello said there are also many logistical issues to consider when trying to increase spending on transit improvements. “This is tough stuff,” he said. “This isn’t like building the Old Colony Line out in the middle of the prairie. This is fixing something that’s running every day. It’s a hugely complex endeavor.”
Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrative officer and acting general manager, said one challenge is employees trying to juggle day-to-day work along with longer-range responsibilities. He said one solution may be to create teams of employees that focus exclusively on the longer-range work. He noted, for example, that the T has had success with a team dedicated exclusively to upgrading its automated fare collection system.
Erik Stoothoff, the MBTA’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure, said one constraint on making improvements to the T is that the agency only shuts down one section of the transit system each weekend for repair work. He said providing replacement service on the closed portion requires the deployment of 40 to 50 buses and 150 employees working overtime. “That has been a pretty significant limiting factor for us,” he said.
Pollack suggested repair work could be accelerated if contractors doing work on a section of the transit system were required to hire private firms to provide the replacement bus service as part of their contracts. That would allow the T to tackle repairs on more than one line during a weekend, she said.
Staffing at the T is another major constraint on repair work. The agency is hiring new managers, but officials say they are having a difficult time because the agency’s salary structure is inadequate. “It’s not competitive enough to attract the right talent to the organization,” said Jessie Saintcyr, assistant secretary of human resources at MassDOT.
Saintcyr said it’s also difficult to convince members of the MBTA’s unions to move up into management because the pay isn’t that attractive and the responsibilities are enormous.
Aiello, the head of the T’s oversight board, raised concerns about employees being brought in now at salaries that far exceed those of workers brought on board several years ago. “We can’t end up in a two-tier system,” he said.
Saintcyr said she and her staff are working to develop a new salary structure. She said a newly hired compensation manager starts work Nov. 7.
Gary Foster, a technology officer for the state’s transportation agencies, suggested another way the T’s salary structure may be outdated. He said the T continues to offer a defined benefit pension plan (which bases the pension payout on years employed at the agency) at a time when relatively few employees take jobs these days with the expectation that they will remain with the same company for 10 to 20 years.
Pollack said outside contractors can be hired to jumpstart capital projects at the T, but she said the Fiscal Management and Control Board needs to give the agency guidance on how aggressively to use consultants. She noted there is often political pushback to hiring consultants rather than employees. Aiello said he was not opposed to using consultants in the short-term, but he said employees at the agency have to be in charge of executing initiatives.
The commuter rail system also came up during the discussion, with several people questioning whether the MBTA is doing enough to plan for future shifts in ridership. Commuter rail is heavily used during morning and evening commutes, but less so the rest of weekdays and on weekends. Shortsleeve said the subsidy for weekend riders is $24 per trip because so few of them ride the trains.
“Historically, it’s we bring people into and out of Boston,” said Ryan Coholan, deputy director of railroad operations at the T. But he said ridership is changing on some lines. On the Worcester Line, for example, he said the T is seeing growing demand for a reverse commute from Boston to Southborough rather than the other way around.
Shortsleeve said New Balance, which is constructing a new commuter rail station called Boston Landing near its headquarters, believes half of its employees using the station will be coming out from Boston rather than coming in from the suburbs.