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Kennedy School Fellow Proposes Reforms to the T

The MBTA will offer a free fare day in April in addition to a 15% discount on month-long passes in May. The price reductions come after the T shut down numerous times due to snowstorms this winter.
The MBTA will offer a free fare day in April in addition to a 15% discount on month-long passes in May. The price reductions come after the T shut down numerous times due to snowstorms this winter.
By Nathaniel J. Hiatt, Crimson Staff Writer

Nearly a year after the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority drew harsh criticism for its faltering operations during Boston’s historic winter, a new report published by a Harvard Kennedy School fellow details how the system can improve its service and stay financially viable.

The report, authored by Charles Chieppo, a fellow at the Ash Center who previously served on the MBTA’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Forward Funding, outlines several steps that the transportation service should take to reduce costs and increase ridership. The recommendations include improving customer service, ending expansion projects beyond those required by law, bringing MBTA workers into the Massachusetts State Pension Fund, and ending the power of their worker union to leverage final and binding arbitration in their favor.

The MBTA, and in particular, its rail service known as the T, faced criticism after experiencing crippling delays, cancellations, and suspensions last winter, which saw record-breaking snowfalls. These failures can partly be attributed to a lack of maintenance upkeep on the MBTA’s equipment, according to the report.

During last year's historic winter, the MBTA was plagued by delays and cancellations due to snowfall
During last year's historic winter, the MBTA was plagued by delays and cancellations due to snowfall By Savannah I. Whaley

According to Chieppo, the MBTA faces two major problems: a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog and immense debt. As of October 31, the MBTA owes more than $5 billion in debt, according to a recent report from the transportation service’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, which Massachusetts governor Charles D. Baker ’79 convened in July to advise the MBTA on sustainable management, operations, and finance.

“You’ve got a problem where a lot of money has been spent to fund expansion, and it has come at the cost of maintaining the current system,” Chieppo said in an interview.

MBTA spokesperson Jason B. Johnson wrote in an email that the government is working with the MBTA to address these issues.

“Since its formation, the [Fiscal and Management Control Board] has aggressively examined opportunities to reduce the T’s structural deficit and operating costs,” Johnson wrote. The T aims to raise its revenue to $100 million, from its current annual level of $60 million, Johnson wrote.

Johnson also wrote that the control board has also “made quick moves to address costs on the Green Line Extension, a major expansion project.”

Chieppo’s report, which also provide plans to increase the T’s revenue, includes recommendations that fall into two broad categories: improving customer service and decreasing costs.

“If you want people who have other options to ride the T, then you need to have good customer service,” Chieppo said. “It gets to where you have more revenue and more riders, and gets you to a place where you can have discounts for lower income people.”

The main cost-cutting measures he proposed include ending expansion projects for the T beyond those required by law. Chieppo's other proposals involve mitigating the power of the worker union and putting workers on a state-run pension program.

“The MBTA pension is a mess,” Chieppo said. The MBTA retirement fund is private and separate from the state pension, and the fund does not disclose much of its information to the public. Chieppo said that taxpayers, though, pay for part of the MBTA retirement fund.

“If the fund is in as bad a shape as we think it is, then the taxpayers are on the hook for that,” Chieppo said.

Chieppo also said the government should remove the worker union’s ability to have final and binding arbitration. According to the report, arbitrators’ rulings on the worker union’s behalf are not subject to approval by another entity, such as a “city council or board of selectmen.”

Johnson wrote in his email that the MBTA has already considered many of the reforms suggested in the report. In a report from November 30, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board considered reforming The RIDE—a transportation service for the elderly and disabled—and reducing expenditures for bus maintenance.

–Staff writer Nathaniel J. Hiatt can be reached at nathanielhiatt@gmail.com.

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