Panel OKs control board for MBTA after winter breakdowns; Baker says more tools needed

Industrials Associated Press

A bill that would establish a financial control board to oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was given the green light Tuesday by a key legislative panel, but Gov. Charlie Baker signaled that the measure fell short of what he considered necessary to fix the troubled transit system.

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The Transportation Committee, made up of House and Senate members, voted to advance a redrafted version of the bill that originally was filed by the Republican governor after record-setting snowfall led to crippling breakdowns this past winter and exposed what critics say were serious weaknesses in MBTA management.

The bill next goes to the full House, with Democratic leaders hoping for final action before lawmakers go on summer recess at the end of July.

The measure would establish a five-member control board to manage the MBTA for at least the next three years, but does not provide the board with some of the broader powers sought by Baker, including the authority to override binding arbitration with transit unions and raise passenger fares above limits set by current law.

The bill also leaves untouched the so-called Pacheco Law, which limits the T's ability to contract out some services to private vendors.

In a statement, Baker said the bill represented progress, "but solving the chronic problems that plague the agency will require a strong fiscal management and control board armed with the appropriate tools to make meaningful reforms."

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An April report from a task force appointed by Baker said the T was suffering from "pervasive organizational failure."

Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the transportation committee, said he still believes a compromise is possible that would be acceptable to the governor and most lawmakers.

Straus noted that the full House had earlier voted to give the T a temporary reprieve from the anti-privatization law, but the language was not included in the current bill because of resistance in the Senate.

The committee rejected Baker's proposal to give the control board power to raise fares beyond the current limit of 5 percent every two years because lawmakers view fare hikes as a potential "easy way out," and one that could discourage more creative approaches to solving the T's financial problems, said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.

The agency is governed by the seven-member Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, which also oversees highways, airports and other transportation services. The control board would be fully focused on strengthening the transit system, backers of the proposal say.

The bill also would make clear that the MBTA's general manager is hired by the state Secretary of Transportation, setting up a clear chain of command from the governor's office to T management.

"That was a particularly frustrating problem that we saw during the winter when on some days no one was sure who the general manager answered to," Straus said.