Most of the time I ramble through the streets of Greater Boston in my nearly 20-year-old car. But in the winter, during the dreaded snow days, I head for the bus stop. You may know that I hate snow, and I am petrified to drive when the frozen flakes fly fast and furious. So, I’m a seasonal bus rider and a witness to the efficiency of the much maligned MBTA system in the toughest months of the year. Sure, I’ve been delayed on the red line more than a few times when traffic or other issues throw my buses off schedule. But, for the most part, my buses show up on schedule — even in the worst weather.
I’ve always credited the bus drivers who outdo postal workers in fighting the rain, sleet and snow to be on time for their shifts. But I’ve now come to appreciate that a lot of the buses would never get on the road in the first place without the work of the mechanics. Mechanics who have been engaged in a monthslong battle against Gov. Baker and the MBTA board’s move to privatize some MBTA garages — eliminating 20 percent of the 450 mechanic jobs. Gov. Baker and the MBTA claim outsourcing these jobs would save $50 million a year by cutting costs of salaries and the number of positions.
The mechanics and their union have been rallying at the State House, warning what would be lost by outsourcing. Machinist Fletcher Hillman told WGBH's Mike Deehan cutting corners not only impacts safety, but ultimately doesn’t produce cost savings. Hillman pointed out with fewer workers, “these buses are going to start stacking up ... and they’re not going to give us the people to repair them — they have to pay overtime.”
Forty percent of the more than 1,000 buses are new as of August, with 85 percent of the old fleet less than 15 years old, with some of the old fleet retrofitted with new parts and modern configurations. But, I know it takes more than a new part for my mechanic to keep my overworked car on the road. The MBTA mechanics have kept the older equipment operational with skill often coupled with some MacGyver-like ingenuity. I know a private company with its cut-rate salary workers will not bring the same energy and commitment to patching up the buses and new becomes old pretty quickly. That’s bad news for customers — both the daily riders who count on reliable service and the seasonal riders like me.
The mechanics' union is fighting back against the MBTA’s argument that Boston’s T workers are the highest paid in the country. They argue Boston is an expensive place to live. Nevertheless, the union has proposed a plan to keep jobs, but also cut $27 million from the current budget. And the union objects that the new MBTA GM Luis Ramirez could earn a possible $32,000 bonus by meeting certain goals, one of which is finalizing the bus maintenance contract. The Machinists Union’s Mike Vartabedian told the Boston Globe it’s “an incentive to privatize bus maintenance.”
The T and the union are now back at the negotiation table. It’s happening against a "drip, drip" of revelations about the MBTA’s cost overruns, failure to collect fees, and pension risks. All at a time when several big companies are considering Boston for relocation — most citing excellent public transportation as a big draw. We won’t protect our system by outsourcing which always seems to me to shortchange consumers. I know there must be a way to slow the fiscal bleeding from public transportation, but I don’t want the mechanics to be bloodied in the process.