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By Andy Metzger

BOSTON, OCT. 16, 2017.....The MBTA's turn toward the competitive marketplace for bus maintenance has come up short, according to the union representing the in-house bus mechanics, but the T's manager was mum about the agency's efforts to test the private sector.

According to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 264, which cited "MBTA sources," only one company responded to the July bid for work on bus safety and maintenance.

First Transit is the only bidder, according to the union, which said the Baker administration's "efforts to sell off these core services have essentially failed after not attracting enough private bidders."

MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez said the MBTA is moving ahead with the bidding process and declined to confirm or deny the union's assertions.

"I can't comment on the people who bid, but I can say that we're working together with the bid process and getting data and trying to make decisions as we finish the process," Ramirez told reporters.

In a written statement from Ramirez, the MBTA did not deny the union's assertions, which were made in a press release handed out to reporters at Monday's joint meeting of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board of Directors.

However, an MBTA spokesman declined to specify the number of bids received or even if there was a submission deadline in connection with the agency's July request for proposals.

In a statement, Ramirez said the T's strategy involved negotiating in good faith with its labor unions, driving productivity through internal management initiatives, and exploring opportunities to partner with outside entities.

"In order to ensure the integrity of the procurement process, we are not going to discuss specifics of the process until it has been completed," Ramirez said. "However, as a direct result of this three-part approach, the T has analytical and other baseline data it had previously lacked. The T will be able to use this information to produce a more cost effective and efficient bus maintenance operation that will benefit both the ridership and the taxpayers of the Commonwealth."

The MBTA's roughly $2 billion fiscal 2018 budget relied on finding about $8 million in savings from bus maintenance. T officials planned to find savings by exploring privatization, negotiating with the union and improving efficiencies at the T's in-house garages.

The T solicited proposals to outsource maintenance work at three garages in Lynn, Quincy and Jamaica Plain. The RFP envisioned a private vendor taking over full bus maintenance and operations management as soon as Dec. 31, 2017. The RPF timeline specified an Aug. 30 deadline for submissions and a Sept. 29 notice of award recommendation.

Michael Vartabedian, area director for the International Association of Machinists District 15, described First Transit as a "very questionable bidder," and relayed to the control board several reports of disputes involving the company.

Appealing to the control board to keep maintenance in-house, Vartabedian described serious lapses in security after Mancon took over the T's warehouse management, and referenced Keolis Commuter Services, the often-criticized commuter rail vendor.

"Are you going to do what the Fiscal and Management Control Board was created for? Will you be good stewards of the public transit system or will your legacy be bringing in the next Mancon, Keolis or worse?" Vartabedian asked.

Charles Chieppo, a senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute, said outsourcing of bus maintenance would allow the T to save money that could be "reinvested in the system."

"The outsourcing of bus maintenance is absolutely critical if progress is to continue at the T," Chieppo told the board.


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