In the course of approving an almost $2 billion budget for fiscal year 2018, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted unanimously to privatize four of the T's 10 bus maintenance garages.
Next year's MBTA budget is set at $1.989 billion. That makes it effectively flat with this year's most recent figure of $1.970 billion. Zero operating budget growth was a management goal.
In its struggle to eliminate – or at least whittle down – persistent budget deficits, privitisation has been the favored MBTA tool, pitting it repeatedly against T unions.
The MBTA seeks to save $25 million annually by contracting out bus maintenance. In addition, the 2018 budget appears to assume closure of the Lynn maintenance facility, considered by some to be a shaky operation.
The MBTA is facing an operating budget deficit of about $52 million for next fiscal year. The Legislature annually grants the T about $187 million to balance its books. But under Gov. Charlie Baker, T managers are determined to use that money on capital projects and not on day-to-day operations.
Union members argue that the T never attempted to negotiate with them and that it's veteran bus mechanics do better work than private companies.
"2018 will be the Machinists centennial contract. One-hundred years with the Authority. Our promise to you today is to keep buses moving and not to walk away from our responsibilities," said John Powers, a machinist steward at the Albany Street bus garage.
Several pro-union lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to sway the panel not to pursue the elimination of the 120 public sector maintenance jobs.
"Privatization is not the solution. Privatization is not going to update our aging bus fleet. Privatization is not going to get rid of our cold winters and difficult weather conditions, but privatization will put the best machinists in this country out of work and if it ain't broke don't fix it. Let's get to the table and negotiate this," Rep. Brendan Creighton told the MBTA board.
The T will now solicit proposals from private maintenance companies to take over one or more of the bus garages. Workers at the garages would still be unionized, but no longer employees or the state or MBTA.
Instead of voting on a proposal to eliminate weekend commuter rail service, the board voted to pursue an unspecified $5 million in savings from the entire Commuter Rail system. Service cuts to low-ridership lines like weekend routes are still on the table.
The MBTA's FY2018 budget plan approved by the board also instructs the T to cut back on spending for the RIDE paratransit service, possibly limiting it only to trips required under federal law. Managers expect cutting back on the so-call premium RIDE services could save $3 million, but today's board decision only seeks to find an additional $1 million in savings from the RIDE.
The T board also voted Thursday to allow Keolis, the company that operates the Commuter Rail, to share in additional revenue generated from a crackdown on fare evasion, a plan that could lead to fare gates at popular rail stations. To furth boost revenue, budget also instructs T managers to pursue advertisements from alcohol companies.