Red Line

^ overtime pay abuses do not help the MBTA to win public confidence

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Yesterday’s pay and fare hike report by the MBTA’s Fiscal Control Board (FCB)  has already generated passionate argument and much outrage. Some of that outrage is well founded. That a maintenance worker was allowed to work 2,660 overtime hours during this year and take home pay of $ 315,000 surprised the FCB, so its members said. It certainly shocks me.

There’s much more in the FCB’s appraisal of T expenditures, but first let’s focus on overtime. In no way should the T allow employees to chalk up unlimited overtime, which calls for pay at “time and a half .” The maintenance worker I spoke of worked more hours than two normal full time employees. Why wasn’t that second employee hired instead, to be paid at the normal rate, saving maybe $ 42,000 ? Nor is this employee the only one. A large percentage of T employees earned more than $ 100,000 this year — a higher proportion than in any other State agency.  By limiting allowable overtime, the T will save money usefully.

Unlimited overtime may be written into the Carmen’s Union contract. I hope not. Or perhaps the FCB does have the power to limit overtime. If so, it must do so. If not, the policy must be changed when the next contract is negotiated. Limiting overtime will also require new hires — always a good thing — and limit the impact of exhaustion on overtimers. How can an employee work 92 hours a week, every week, and not overtax his or her physics ?

Other matters in the FCB report don’t shock me. You can read the Boston Globe’s narrative of them at this link : http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/12/21/policy-allows-percent-fare-hikes-every-years/wJou9HfEIoT07GELNXf3DP/story.html

First, the hourly pay for bus drivers and train operators : we learn that the averaged wage is $ 35/hour and that that’s 50 percent higher than the national average for public transit drivers. This sounds bad: but Boston is a much more expensive city to live in or near than most American metropolitan regions. Rents here run double to quadruple the rate in most other cities.

In discussion, I learned that drivers at private bus company Peter Pan earn $ 17/hour. Yes : but Peter Pan is based in Springfield, were the cost of living isn’t half of what it is in Boston (rents are about 25 percent as high), and how do you compare a private bus company to a transit system that serves whoever gets aboard a bus or train, often unruly or drunk or even abusive ? Nor does a private bus company travel routes unprofitable, as a public transit service must.

Conclusion : the basic wage for MBTA drivers and train operators isn’t the problem. Overtime abuse is the problem.

Second : proposed fare hikes : the FCB says it may ask for increases of ten percent every two years. I’m inclined to oppose that. Right now an MBTA round trip costs $ 4.20 (half that if you are a “senior”), which is less than  the cost of bridge and tunnel tolls. Today the difference doesn’t matter to most, but if the round trip fare becomes $ 4.62, it might. Multiply the extra $ 1.12 by 25 work days, and you’re talking $ 28 a month, $ 336 a year.

The only cost that might continue to hold people back from choosing to drive into Boston instead of taking the T is parking. Many lots charge $ 20 a day. That’s a significant deterrent, but one that fare increases lessen.

We are trying, as a society, to encourage people not to bring cars into Boston. So far, the tactic is working. The T risks reversing that trend if it seeks fare hikes that people can feel. Better, if fare hikes must be ordered, to keep them small and rare.

The entire question of fare prices should wait until we know the outcome of two initiatives : ( 1 ) an FY 2017 State Budget that may well include increased funding for the T and ( 2 ) a ballot question which, if passed by the voters, will create a new income tax surcharge designated for transportation (and education) costs. It is premature to raise fares if the T will receive needed revenue from these upcoming sources instead.

Nor would fare increases amount to anything like enough money to complete the current $ 7.6 billion backlog of equipment., signal, and track upgrades, a sum that will surely grow every month until and unless we get serious about doing the work. This is no time to grind the huge mountain of T deferrals exceeding small.

Smallness has already reared its head at the T by way of proposed cutbacks to service. The FCB proposes to abandon late night rides, pull back tghe Green Line extension to West Medford, and to limit “the Ride,” which severs the elderly and the disabled. This cannot stand. We should be expanding T service, not retreating from it. Sooner or later, the Governor’s transit policy makers are going to grasp that their mission is to bring T service to all, not withhold it when the revenue doesn’t balance. The T is not a business — but the business economy depends on it.

Basic fact.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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