ICYMI: "MBTA Service Improves After Baker's Reforms"

BOSTON -- The Gloucester Daily Times has a new report chronicling the results of Gov. Charlie Baker's MBTA reforms, which have included cutting costs by streamlining services - without raising taxes.

MBTA service improves after Baker's reforms
By Christian Wade

Ann DeFrancisco shuddered in the morning cold Tuesday as she waited on the platform at the MBTA’s commuter rail station in Lynn to catch the train to North Station.

She checked the MBTA’s app on her smartphone, which showed the train on schedule.

“It’s looking pretty good so far,” she said. “They’re getting a lot more reliable.”

DeFrancisco, 35, who commutes five days a week on the Rockport/Newburyport line for her job as an executive assistant in Boston, said the commuter rail’s performance this winter is vastly improved from two years ago, when delayed trains made her chronically late.

“I don’t know what they’re doing, but it seems to be working,” she said.

Though maybe not always on time, the commuter trains have run on schedule far more often this winter in the wake of reforms pushed by Gov. Charlie Baker after brutal weather two years ago ground much of the MBTA a halt.

As epic snowstorms crippled the MBTA, Baker assembled a fiscal control board to fix the beleaguered transit system, and he pressured members of the embattled state Department of Transportation’s board of directors to step down.

In the past year, he has pumped more than $100 million into “winterizing” the MBTA’s trains, subway cars and buses. He’s also pushed through personnel policy changes at the MBTA, negotiated a money-saving contract with its largest union, and outsourced some of the agency’s money-counting and warehouse functions.

Baker notes success in improving the MBTA’s winter operations, cutting its operating deficit and changing its culture, but he acknowledges more changes need to be made to the nation’s sixth-largest transit system.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go,” he said during a recent visit to the North of Boston editorial board at the offices of Salem News, which included Times editors.

Learning from failure

Last month, the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail’s on-time performance was 88 percent, according to MBTA data. That’s compared to February 2015, when the Newburyport/Rockport line had a 22.5 percent on-time performance.

Trains running on the Haverhill line were on-time an average of 89 percent in February, compared to about 30 percent two years ago, the agency said. The goal for all lines is 95 percent.

Baker said he learned a lot from the “historic failures” of 2015 by coming up with more efficient ways to keep the trains running by clearing the tracks of snow. He said MBTA officials designed snow plows that can be attached to the front of existing equipment and dispatched teams of MBTA workers with snow shovels.

“We bought a ton of snow removal equipment and put it to work,” he said. “We didn’t lose a single traction motor in the recent storms because we kept the tracks clear.”

Baker is searching for a new MBTA general manager and said he’s looking for someone who will focus on performance, capital investment and improved customer service.

“I want a businessperson,” he said. “I think we need a general manager who has run enterprises that make big investments in capital projects that are customer-centric.”

Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank, said the Baker administration has made “huge steps” toward reducing the system’s structural deficit and reining in operating costs.

The agency needs to invest some of that savings in capital improvements, she said, to confront a $7 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.

“It’s grown so big that it’s hampering further progress,” she said. “And that’s not going to go away overnight. It’s to going a long time to get the money to pay for those projects.”

T’s financial health

Connaughton said increasing T ridership is a key to its financial health. MBTA figures show about 123,000 people rode the commuter rail on an average day in December — an estimated drop of about 8,000 riders from the beginning of the year.

Commuter rail riders represent an important source of MBTA revenue. Fares from buses, subway, commuter rail and boat service represent about 30 percent of its revenue, generating more than $600 million in the 2016 budget year fiscal year.
Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, credits Baker for taking steps to prevent a recurrence of the winter of 2015, but said there’s a lot of work to be done to improve the transit system.

For one, the Legislature needs to figure out how to pay for the upgrades without adding to the T’s fiscal woes, she said.

“Given how antiquated the system is, I think he’s done a good job,” Campbell said. “But we need to turn the corner and start investing substantially in capital projects, and that will tough.”

Baker said he wants to keep the momentum of the reforms he’s made by extending the life of the five-member fiscal control board, created following the winter storms of 2015. The board is set to dissolve in 2018.

That move could face resistance from Democrats on Beacon Hill, who are reluctant to extend a three-year waiver exempting the MBTA from the Pacheco Law, which gave the public agency latitude to privatize functions to save money.

But lawmakers will likely face pressure from MBTA riders to extend the cost-savings measures, Connaughton said.

“If constituents believe that politics is standing in the way of them getting home to their children at night, they’re going to demand something different,” she said.