One of the biggest issues that constituents have inquired about so far this year involves the MBTA. Constituents want to know why there are MBTA problems and what am I doing about it?
First, it is important to note that there is no fix that any single state representative or state senator can make happen on his or her own. Not even the governor can fix everything on his own; everything is done in collaboration with many other partners.
With that in mind, I am on the House Bonding Committee, which is the committee that oversees state debt, state assets and capital expenditures. Accordingly, our committee had an MBTA hearing on April 8
One of the issues that I raised with the MBTA was that every year when the weather is freezing, the track switches freeze and this delays service, leaving commuters waiting in the cold to get to work, where they will be late. I asked Frank DePaola, the interim GM and Administrator of Rail and Transit under the state Department of Transportation how much it would cost to prevent these rail switches from freezing. I was told about $200 million and was told what that $200 million would be spent on.
Another issue DePaola raised at the hearing was that the average age of the cars is 31 years old, which is not hard to believe if you are a frequent rider. It has been reported that the MBTA did not spend $2.2 billion in capital that it could have. That is slightly misleading. There were legislative restrictions why the capital was not spent. The Legislature is looking to remedy problems so that solutions may happen.
I also asked about the manner in which tickets are frequently not collected by T conductors. Revenues collected from tickets amount to just over $100 million. And the lost revenues from non-collection of tickets, while a loss we need to stop bleeding from, would never be enough to cover the needs of the MBTA.
The delivery of service on commuter lines, for example, has been contracted to a private company. Keolis is a France-based company with contracts in Massachusetts and Virginia. According to their website they serve 50 million people globally annually, of which 127,000 are on the MBTA daily. Keolis is good at what they do and, in fairness, was faced with the worst winter on record in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, it also seems that Keolis factors in that the financial penalties associated with the poor MBTA service is just part of the cost of doing business in Massachusetts. This is unacceptable. One solution is that the Legislature can require a severability clause in the contract when standards are not met. This is something that other reps and I are looking into.
On MBTA employee absenteeism, I spoke with the president of the Local 589 Carman's union, James O'Brien, who has 4,000 employees on the MBTA Red, Blue, Orange, Green, Silver and bus lines in Boston. He told me that the governor's commission included in its skewed definition of absenteeism the following: military service, maternity leave, vacation time and being injured on the job to name a few. Clearly, these are not abuses of absenteeism.
O'Brien also explained to me that about 10 years ago some doctors started encouraging the misuse of "FMLA time" over "sick time" because FMLA does not require the same documentation as sick time. The union president told me he is cracking down on these abuses because this non-representative minority of abusers makes the majority of his employees look bad.
Thomas Murray, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 2054, which runs the Providence-Boston commuter line, for example, testified before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation. "What we saw was a paralysis at the upper-management level," he said. He also noted that better indoor facilities of commuter rail equipment are needed to keep equipment from freezing.
The governor has put this issue at the forefront of his agenda, and rightly so. The governor's own commission concluded that this is a management issue and a revenue issue. Sometimes management needs revenue to effectively manage, sometimes not.
No one person, state agency, union, private contractor or the legislature can fix the problem alone. It requires action from all involved. I hope readers will realize that there are things that have tangible solutions, but these things are going to take time and capital expenditure.
Paul Heroux of Attleboro is the state representative from the Second Bristol District and can be reached at 508-639-9511 or email@example.com.