LAWMAKERS KNOCK FIRST TRANSIT IN TESTIMONY BEFORE MBTA BOARD
By Colin A. Young
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON, DEC. 18, 2017.....Growing increasingly concerned about the skirmish over outsourcing the work of some MBTA bus maintenance garages, almost a quarter of the Legislature signed onto a letter delivered Monday to MBTA leaders seeking whatever information the T has about the company thought to have made the sole bid to take over some T bus maintenance operations.
MBTA officials have said the transit system, which has an extensive backlog of repair needs, could save significant money by turning to the private sector to handle some of the $132 million spent annually to keep its bus fleet in working order. The T has solicited bids for bus maintenance, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 264 has said that only one company -- First Transit -- submitted a proposal.
"It is telling that what should have been a robust and comprehensive bidding process yielded only one proposal. The sole submission by First Transit indicates a grave error on the part of the MBTA and is only exacerbated by the disastrous history that the company possesses," the lawmakers wrote in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Paul Mark of Peru, a community not served by the MBTA.
The union has raised concern about First Transit's history in other cities, and in 2012 First Transit agreed with the attorney general's office to pay $7.3 million to settle allegations that it backed out of a 2009 contract to run The RIDE for the MBTA, according to an archived press release from the attorney general's office.
The 46 lawmakers who signed the letter formally requested that the T provide them with all documents related to a 2009 contract with the MBTA that First Transit allegedly violated and all correspondence between the Ohio-based transit company and the T during the most recent bus maintenance bid process.
"As elected officials we bear a major responsibility to ensure that the oldest running bus fleet in the country continues to operate with conscientious and capable management. The reputation of First Transit, both inside and beyond the Commonwealth, leaves us with great concerns about this contract," the legislators wrote. "With past privatization efforts leading to downgrades in service and travel, this measure represents a dismal step backwards in the quality of service to (sic) received by daily users of the MBTA."
Under the pressure of a structural budget deficit and an aging system whose more than $7 billion repair backlog translates into delayed trains and frustrated commuters, T leadership turned toward privatization two years ago with the governor's and Legislature's blessing.
In 2015, as part of the annual budget bill, the Democrat-controlled Legislature enacted a provision first initiated by the House Committee on Ways and Means to give the MBTA a three-year suspension of the so-called Pacheco Law, which requires privatization proposals to be vetted by the state auditor.
Sen. Marc Pacheco -- for whom the law imposing constraints on privatization is colloquially named -- and Reps. Tackey Chan, James Cantwell and Michelle DuBois spoke during the public comment period at Monday's meeting of the T's Fiscal and Management Control Board, arguing against outsourcing work at bus maintenance garages.
"Last April 13, your board voted unanimously that the preferred option for finding savings was negotiating with the union. Unanimous vote. And yet, from everything I can see and my understanding, that is not happening," Pacheco said. He added, "As I stand before you today, I cannot believe that we may end up handing over a contract to a company that held the commonwealth up for over $66 million ... when we have the best bus maintenance workers in the United States of America doing the job today."
The MBTA has not confirmed or denied the union's assertion that First Transit submitted the only response to its bus maintenance solicitation, but T management on Monday provided an update on its efforts to find $8 million in savings from bus repair in the agency's roughly $2 billion fiscal 2018 budget.
General Manager Luis Ramirez on Monday said that MBTA bus maintenance costs through the first third of this fiscal year have declined 16 percent compared to the same period in fiscal 2016, which the T uses as its bus maintenance benchmark.
"While I'm happy with these results, management actions alone will not result in more bus service and better bus service in the long term," Ramirez said. "We need to continue to negotiate with our labor unions, we need to continue our efforts to test the private market to find ways to enhance our bus service, and to do so in a way that results in cost savings from maintenance and increased productivity and ultimately better bus service overall for our passengers."
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