Baker presses for increased power over MBTA

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BOSTON >> Gov. Charlie Baker was back in campaign mode on Monday, focused on winning support from Beacon Hill lawmakers for a MBTA reform bill that would hand him more power over the troubled transit agency.

Baker, testifying for the first time as governor before a legislative committee, sought to convince Transportation Committee members of the need to put the MBTA under the authority of a finance control board for at least three years. Some lawmakers voiced concerns that the move would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, and argued the governor already has the ability to control the agency.

Baker said the current state transportation board -- which the governor is seeking to expand to 11 members in the same legislation -- meets just once a month and already has a "huge portfolio of stuff." A separate control board is needed to exclusively focus on the MBTA, he said.

As the hearing stretched into the late afternoon, the committee also heard from other proponents and opponents -- like Auditor Suzanne Bump -- of a provision in the bill that lifts the so-called "Pacheco Law" governing the privatization of services for the MBTA.

Entering a packed Gardner Auditorium, Baker walked through a crowd of seated union members who oppose his legislation and greeted each Transportation Committee lawmaker with a handshake, stopping to kiss Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, D-Dorchester, on the cheek.

In the run-up to the hearing, the Boston Carmen's Union was waging its own campaign, walking door to door inside the State House, lobbying lawmakers to influence the bill.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack also shook committee members' hands before taking their seats alongside Board of Higher Education chair Chris Gabrieli, Baker economic development chief Jay Ash, and Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan.

Gabrieli, a former Democratic candidate for governor, chaired the finance control board tasked with turning around the city of Springfield, while Ash was the city manager of Chelsea after it was placed in state receivership.

Baker stayed for 90 minutes, sitting with the panel and answering questions from lawmakers. He left shortly after 2:30 p.m., more than a half hour late for a meeting with the House speaker and Senate president.

At the hearing's outset, Transportation Committee co-chair William Strausm, D-Mattapoisett, said the previous governor and lawmakers worked to centralize the state transportation system.

He pointed to the elimination of the Turnpike Authority, which merged with the Massachusetts Highway Department to form the Massachusetts Department of Transportation highway division under a 2009 law.

"That effort toward what at least I ultimately see as the elimination of the MBTA as a standalone entity has to inform our discussion," Straus said.

Baker's nascent administration has the tools already in place to get involved in the hiring of a permanent manager of the MBTA and hold the agency accountable through direct supervision, he added. Baker earlier this year requested and received the resignations of six MassDOT board members appointed by his predecessor, and last week started to fill the board with his own appointees.

Stating that lawmakers do not view MBTA reform as a partisan issue and see the administration as "our partner," Straus said one of his favorite sections of the bill allows the transportation secretary to hire the person who runs the MBTA.

He added that he is concerned another board could "pose a risk of getting in the way."

A Better City President Rick Dimino also questioned the need for a financial control board, saying it would add another layer of governance. "It just seems to be adding more confusion and bureaucracy," he told the committee after Baker testified.

Baker and his panel members defended the governor's legislation (H 3347).

"The public deserves a public transportation system that works," said Sullivan, the Braintree mayor, who also served on a Baker-appointed task force that criticized the MBTA and laid out recommendations that were included in Baker's legislation.

At the end of his testimony, Baker received warm words from the committee chairmen. "You've been absolutely fantastic," Rep. Straus said, while Sen. Thomas McGee, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party, stated, "You've been great answering questions."

Baker's bill also lifts for the MBTA the "Pacheco Law," which critics say hampers the government's ability to privately contract for services.

Pollack said the MBTA needs flexibility to contract out more services, such as its late night service. The late night service handles a smaller group of people than during the day, but the agency does not have the small vehicles to make the service more cost-effective, according to Pollack.

She added that among the MBTA's biggest customer complaints is fare evasion on the commuter rail. Pollack raised the possibility of hiring "fare agents" to collect money, but said setting up that kind of system would take longer if Baker's bill isn't passed.

Bump, the state auditor, opposed exempting the MBTA from the Pacheco Law.

"When an agency demonstrates that a private company can perform a government function at a lower cost without compromising quality, safety, or effectiveness, that privatization plan is approved," she said. "The Pacheco Law ensures that it isn't just political philosophy, raw politics or the desire for a quick fix that guides the decision."

Bump said a 1996 proposal for privatization of bus shelter maintenance failed because the MBTA could not show it had "complete knowledge of costs." And in 1997, proposals to privatize bus operations and maintenance at facilities in Quincy and Charlestown failed because the agency couldn't prove the effort would "actually save money or improve quality," she added.

Bump also pointed to a 2012 audit that showed the MBTA had a $94 million automated fare collection system that was unable to count receipts.

Asked by Rep. Hannah Kane, R-Shrewsbury, for her thoughts on a financial control board, Bump said she did not have an opinion on the issue because it was outside her purview, unlike the Pacheco Law.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, testified in defense of the law named after him, saying it passed in the 1990s because of fraud and waste in the state's procurement system that "bordered on almost being criminal."

But the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank, disagreed with Pacheco and Bump on the law's impact.

"The Pacheco Law has done exactly what it was meant to do: make the process so arbitrary and onerous that no privatizations are ever attempted," senior fellow Charles Chieppo said in testimony. "There have been less than 10 attempts in the more than 21 years since the law was passed."

The president of the Boston Carmen's Union, Jim O'Brien, appeared before the committee two hours after Baker wrapped up his testimony, and stayed away from the heated tone that marked a union rally on Boston Common earlier on Monday.

The union has 4,000 members and wants to be "part of the solution," O'Brien said.

But lifting the Pacheco Law from the MBTA would "only open the door to Big Dig abuses" by corporations, he said.


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