Keeping up the pressure on lawmakers to act on his MBTA management reform proposal, Gov. Charlie Baker rolled out a plan Thursday to invest $83 million to improve the system’s winter preparedness with purchases of new track heaters, snow netting and other equipment.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will replace some third rails and install snow fences along outdoor sections of the Red and Orange lines to limit drift accumulations, under the plan, and put additional contractors and Bay State prison inmates on retainer to help with snow removal in case of emergencies.
Baker detailed his “winter resiliency” plan at an afternoon press conference where he also pressed the Legislature to pass his bill to overhaul the management structure at the T. Baker is looking to install a fiscal control board to oversee the MBTA for at least the next three years, and is seeking law changes to make it easier to privatize services and gain increased leverage during union negotiations.
“This is not a cure-all and there remains significant work ahead to overcome the structural and financial challenges we face at the T. Our legislation, we believe, addresses many of those concerns to set the T on the right track, pun intended, toward efficiency and dependability,” Baker said.
After a brutal winter that crippled many parts of the transit system for extended periods, Baker said the $82.7 million in dedicated funding will be put toward the purchase of new snow removal equipment, infrastructure upgrades and operations to improve service reliability during storms.
Federal funds for capital investments will pay for the bulk of the program – $62 million – and the administration plans to dedicate $10 million in non-federal MBTA capital funds and $11.7 million in operating funds toward the upgrades. No legislation is needed to implement the plan but it requires MBTA Board approval.
Baker wants to purchase new specialized snow removal equipment, anti-icing equipment, and an increased stock of traction motors, which burnt out frequently last winter, and to make repairs to maintenance facilities, purchase emergency power generators to augment existing subway and facility power, and improve track access for larger snow removal equipment on the Red Line.
The “resiliency plan” also calls for additional snow removal contract services, a formal agreement with the Department of Corrections to use inmates for snow removal when needed, the use of “incident management software” to more efficiently track the deployment of snow removal equipment and revised protocols for communicating with the public.
Interim MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola said the bulk of the funding will be committed before December, with work starting in July to begin installing new third rails, switch heaters and snow fencing and to clear rights of way to improve access to tracks on the Orange and Red Lines.
DePaola said much of the work will be done during the week at night, and the MBTA will likely shut down the system on lines undergoing improvements at 9 p.m. and bus commuters until closing time to give crews time to complete the work before January.
The additional outside contract with DOC and other vendors for snow removal help are “not a Pacheco issue,” according to DePaola, referencing the so-called “Pacheco Law” that requires agencies to prove they can save money by contracting out work.
Baker reiterated that taxes are not on the table to increase investment in public transit, and said he would not engage in a conversation about additional financial resources for the MBTA until the management problems are fixed and the T shows it has maximized “own-source revenue” through options like advertising and ridership gains.
“This is just a down-payment on the kinds of changes that we’re going to be needing to make at the MBTA and the kinds of investments that we need to make in the system,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said. “We’re doing what we can with the resources at our disposal.”
Pollack said the winter preparations are “not going to fix the T,” and joined Baker in urging the Legislature to act on the reform bill before the end of the summer.
Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus said the projects outlined in Baker’s resiliency plan are “clearly required” after last winter.
“Everything there is clearly called for. It’s fortunate that this is largely to be funded with federal monies available, although the downside to that is its federal monies that then aren’t available for other things,” Straus said.
The Mattapoisett Democrat said he met Wednesday with Pollack to go over sections of the legislation and request suggestions on language, and said he is operating with a goal of advancing a bill out of committee and through the House and Senate by August at the latest. Without discussing specifics of where negotiations stand on issues of arbitration or privatization, he said only that he was working with Senate colleagues on the committee to “reach agreement on as many issues as possible.”
“I’m not talking about the fall or anything like that,” Straus said, adding, “I believe the administration is aware about the level of detail and effort that the committee is devoting to this as we speak.”
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg issued a statement commending Baker for “moving quickly” to address immediate infrastructure needs.
“The failure of our public transit system this past winter affected working families, businesses, and students alike. These improvements will hopefully avoid repeated failures in the system and move the MBTA towards a system that residents can count on regardless of the weather,” Rosenberg said.
The governor’s plan was developed based on recommendations from an American Public Transportation Association peer review of how other cold-weather states prepare their public transit systems for winter weather.
“I don’t think what happened last winter is something that happens all the time,” Baker said. “I do think it raised significant issues with respect to the ways we had prepped for the winter and, as Frank pointed out, they did a lot of work internally and externally once it stopped snowing to figure out what we could learn from last winter.”