Republican Governor Battles to Reform Transit System

Republican Governor Battles to Reform Transit System

© David Burton 2015

The MBTA Fails in 2015 Winter Storms

     Massive breakdowns plagued the Boston-area MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) transit system during severe snow storms during the winter of 2015. The winter’s transit system failures were the culmination of years of problems with the area’s transit system, commonly referred to as the “T”. The T’s problems have been caused by poor management, self-serving public labor unions, and politicians unwilling to face up to the T’s problems and take the necessary actions to redress its ongoing troubles.

     The MBTA is the public operator of most bus, subway, commuter rail, and ferry routes in the greater Boston area. The T is officially a "body politic and corporate, and a political subdivision" of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its immediate predecessor, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), was immortalized by The Kingston Trio in the popular folk-protest lament "Get Poor Charlie off the M.T.A." In 2008, the system was the fourth busiest subway system in the United States.[1]

     The T is reported to be “wildly overpaying for basic maintenance service”.[2] A report by the Pioneer Institute in 2013 stated that the per-mile bus maintenance costs at the MBTA are almost twice as much as the average of all other bus transit agencies in the United States that operate more than 100 buses.[2]

     “Nationally, the MBTA ranks fourth in per-mile maintenance costs and second in staffing levels at garages.(Ref. 2)

     With all this extra money being spent on maintenance, one would expect that the commuting public in Massachusetts would be getting more reliable service with fewer equipment breakdowns than the other major transit systems in the U.S. But, obviously, we are not!

     The Pioneer report went on to say that the MBTA ranked dead last in performance ratings, i.e., time between breakdowns, when compared with the 20 transit agencies ranked closest to it.[2]

     A major reason why the MBTA has these outrageous maintenance costs but the worst maintenance performance is that the Democratically controlled state government and the MBTA unions are married to each other. As the Pioneer report points out, part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the state’s overly restrictive pro-union and anti-privatization statute, known as the Pacheko Law, which makes it almost impossible for the MBTA to outsource the maintenance work through competitive bidding to obtain less expensive maintenance services.[2] We have a Democratically controlled state government that passes a law that requires the maintenance work to be performed in-house by MBTA union workers. These public employee labor unions then provide the support that keeps these same Democratic politicians in power who ensure that the anti-privatization statute remains in force.

     The net result has been: higher taxes to pay for state subsidies to the transportation system, but still grossly expensive maintenance costs with highly substandard maintenance performance.

     In 2013, in spite of all the money poured in to fund the MBTA, it was $9,Billion in debt and faced a $3 Billion maintenance backlog.[3]

     Another major cause of the MBTA’s ongoing problems is the overspending promoted by liberal, Democratic administrations and legislatures. “The Pioneer Institute called the MBTA's problems, ‘. . . the fault of multiple administrations and legislatures . . . who pushed the MBTA to expand faster than is reasonable.’
     “That includes the $600,000,000 Greenbush commuter rail line and late last year agreeing to pay $23,000,000 for rail rights to bring daily commuter rail service to Gillette Stadium.
      - - -
     “. . . A 2009 independent review of the MBTA requested by former Governor Deval Patrick recommended slowing expansion, but also warned about the aging, underfunded, and underperforming MBTA fleet and hundreds of millions in unfunded but critical safety projects.
      - - -
     “The Pioneer Institute is calling for the legislature to place the MBTA into receivership and give the receivership board the power to stop expansion plans and construction.
     ”The Institute also suggests having the state assume some of the MBTA's debt associated with the Big Dig while putting strict controls on hiring.” (Ref. 3)

     Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts who was elected in 2014, submitted a plan to the Democratically controlled Massachusetts legislature to reform the troubled MBTA. As usual here in Massachusetts, this much needed reform plan is being strongly opposed by organized labor and by many of the Democratic legislators who are beholden to these unions for campaign funds and supporters.

     “Facing opposition from key Senate Democrats, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker again appealed to the Legislature to support key elements of his proposed overhaul of the struggling Boston-area transit system, warning that ‘marginal changes’ would do little to improve it.
     “In a letter to House and Senate members released by the administration Friday, Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito urged lawmakers to embrace his call for a financial control board to oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for the next three to five years, and other reforms including an exemption for the T from the restraints of the state’s anti-privatization law.
     “Baker filed his plan last month {April 2015} following recommendations from a task force that found a ‘pervasive organizational failure’ of the agency. The governor asked for the review after massive breakdowns on the transit system during a winter of record-setting snow.
     “ ‘This past winter, the MBTA failed a stress test. But the problems that contributed to its collapse were not new, and were not caused by the winter weather,’ Baker wrote in the letter to legislators.
     “ ‘Taken alone, marginal changes to the oversight of the current MBTA organization will produce little or no meaningful improvement for the riders and employees of the MBTA, and will all but ensure that the MBTA continues to struggle to meet its basic mission of providing reliable public transit service for the people of Massachusetts,’ he added.
      - - -
     “But Senate leaders balked at creating a separate control board . . .” (Ref. 4)

     As one Boston journalist wrote, “If there is one thing that the mismanaged, debt-ridden MBTA needs right now it is discipline – not mush. And yet mush is what the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation appears to be offering.
      - - -
     “The committee has produced a redraft of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reform proposal, but it left out the most meaningful reforms.
     “The fiscal management and control board that Baker wants to appoint to focus intensely on fixing the T is, in the committees version, neither independent nor does it have adequate control. [Emphasis mine]
     “There is no relief from the state’s burdensome anti-privatization law . . .
      - - -
     “And lawmakers in their bill have bowed to union demands that arbitration awards for transit workers never be subject to funding approval, as they are for other public employee unions.
      - - -
     “. . . He {Governor Baker} stressed the need for a ‘full toolbox’ to fix the T to the satisfaction of riders and taxpayers, who contribute more than $1 billion to the system every year.
     “The fact is too often lost on lawmakers who seem to think the agency exists for the benefit of the 6,000 members of the Carmen’s Union, which returns the pols’ usual favor with contributions from its political action committee.” (Ref. 5)

     Leading the fight to retain the status quo of the failed MBTA system are the public employee unions. “The powerful Boston Carmen’s Union, in a bid to derail Gov. Charlie Baker’s MBTA reforms, has spent $300,000 on radio ads, organized campaign-style phone banks and poured thousands into the political coffers of key lawmakers and politicians overseeing T policy, a {Boston} Herald review found.
     “The review shows the 6,000-member-strong labor group’s mounting resistance as a top legislative committee has rebuffed Baker’s key reforms
      - - -
     “The Amalgamated Transit Union – a group representing transit workers in the U.S. and Canada – has also been flooding radio airwaves and other media with imagery of attacking sharks in an attempt to mock Baker’s proposal to suspend the so-called Pacheko Law. The law throws up huge barriers for state agencies looking to outsource certain services – including much-needed repairs {to MBTA equipment}.
      - - -
     “The Carmen’s PAC has also handed out more than $11,000 in political donations to state politicians since Baker announced his T reform proposals on April 8.
      - - -
     “The Herald review comes as the Transportation Committee released a version of MBTA reform legislation yesterday that stripped Baker’s bill of proposals to require board approval for arbitration, create a fiscal control panel reporting to {the} state transportation secretary and temporarily halt the Pacheko law.
      - - -
     “The carmen have been railing against Baker for months amid a groundswell for reform after a system-wide collapse last winter. In April the Herald reported that long before the T came to a grinding halt last winter, absent employees were responsible for most of the 39,937 ‘missed trips’ in 2014 on the MBTA’s 178 bus routes.” (Ref. 6)

     In April, unionized MBTA employees packed a Statehouse hearing room as state transportation officials and members of a review panel appointed by Governor Baker outlined recommendations for shaking up the troubled Boston-area transit system. The workers were opposing changes in work rules or an easing of anti-privatization laws proposed by Baker.[7]

     Ratcheting up their fight against recommended changes to the operation and management of the T, “The powerful Boston Carmen’s Union – making a last stand to defeat T reform as Beacon Hill lawmakers hammered out a final budget bill – launched a new campaign yesterday {June 30, 2015} aimed at pressuring House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo through social media, leaflets and lobbying meetings.
      - - -
     “. . . {T}he Amalgamated Transit Union – the carmen’s parent union – paid to print 10,000 of the leaflets, which rail against the proposal to temporarily suspend the so-called Pacheko law at the MBTA. The law throws up huge barriers for state agencies looking to outsource certain services – including much-needed repairs.” (Ref. 8)

     The Massachusetts public has expressed its outrage at this past winter’s failure of the MBTA. Only time will tell if this outrage will result in meaningful reforms to the system. So far, the responses from the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic legislature and the public employee unions have not been encouraging.


  1. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Wikipedia, Accessed 1 July 2013.
  2. Runaway costs at MBTA, OpEd, Boston Herald, Page 14, 1 July 2013.
  3. What's behind the MBTA mess?, Mike Beaudet,, 12 February 2015.
  4. ‘Marginal’ MBTA changes inadequate, governor warns, Bob Salsberg, Portland Press Herald, 16 May 2015.
  5. Reform in name only, OpEd, Boston Herald, Page 18, 24 June 2015.
  6. ON THE CAMPAIGN RAIL, Erin Smith and Matt Stout, Boston Herald, Page 5, 24 June 2015.
  7. MBTA workers jam Statehouse hearing on transit overhaul,, 27 April 2015.
  8. Carmen leaflets litter buses, call out DeLeo, OpEd, Boston Herald, Page 2, 1 July 2015.


6 July 2015 {Article_226; State_14}    
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