mbta warehouse

^ the T’s parts warehouse. (photo : Boston Globe)

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Three recent MBTA reforms bring us to the devil details which should not be handled in the same way despite the public’s desire to sweep the old ways aside.

First is the T’s parts warehouse; second, bus maintenance; third, its “money room,” where employees count cash fares. MBTA management has suggested outsourcing all three operations, saying that ‘where we do not have expertise,” it would save money to do so.

I’m not sure that saving money is the only issue here,  nor the chiefest. I’m not opposed to outsourcing a T operation. Keolis operates the Commuter Rail (and does the job not always the best, by the way), and the T’s advertising is handled by ad agencies. So let’s look at the three operations that operating manager Brian Shortsleeve seeks to outsource :

1.The parts warehouse. Journalists covering this matter say that the TY’s warehouse operation has a much too long turn around time, and that warehouse staff don’t readily know what parts they have in stock nor how to find them. That seems to be a matter of technology. The T’s warehouse, so it is reported, uses 30 year old data programs.

I don’t see why that is the warehouse staff’s fault. I don’t see why the T can’t upgrade its warehouse data programs. T managers say that updating will cost several million dollars; maybe so, but it’s a one time fix , not an ongoing expense. No one can say that the T’s warehouse workers do not have the right expertise. They have it and more. Yes, they are members of the Carmen’s Union that has fought the T’s necessary reforms; so what ? Reforming the T cannot be a cover for breaking the union.

My decision : upgrade the T warehouse’s data program and do  NOT outsource its work.

2.Bus Maintenance. The T’s new Budget analyst, Pioneer Institute, highlights the T’s maintenance costs as a source of savings. By Pioneer’s standards, the T’s maintenance costs run almost double the national average for similar transit systems.

(Read the Pioneer paper here : )

Unfortunately, the statistics cited do not take into account labor bargains or cost of living. If the T’s maintenance workers earn an average of some 4 111,000 — and several earn quite a bit more, the cost of living in Boston is at least double that in Minneapolis, a city whose transit system Pioneer cites constantly. I would much prefer to see an analysis of the T’s maintenance costs compared on a regional cost of living basis.

The Pioneer analysis also cites overstaffing of the maintenance operation and, at the same time, a higher rate of maintenance failures than in comparable transit systems. The problem here is work rules established in the union contract bargained by the T’s maintenance workers. I find this part of the Pioneer paper persuasive : yet if we have collective bargaining — and we do, and should — then it is up to the T’s management to secure worker acceptance of more effective work rules on performance and staffing. Union contract bargaining can be strongly affected by public po0ressure — the recent Verizon contract is a classic case — and that public pressure can work in both directions. Let’s at it. I will be the first to recommend a revised maintenance worker contract bringing performance into line and cutting down overstaffing.

I do NOT see the need for outsourcing this operation.

3.The “Money room” T  management says that the fare counting and automated fare collection operations employee about 250 too many workers who could be better used as bus drivers (where a shortage often exists), and that a private company can better handle this work; the union responds that the T’s fare counters do the job that they’re supposed to do and also that the two operations, money room and automated fare machines, operate incompatible software. Why not change that, says the union’s chief, James O’Brien.\

He’s right. For example, machines exist that collect fares from riders before the board a subway car; yet in its Green Line expansion reconfiguration, the T, citing cost, has opted not to install these machines. Why not install those machines with software compatible to the T’s money room ? Again the T says that doing so costs money the T doesn’t have — it faces, so T management asserts, about an $ 80 millio0n shortfall.

I find the T’s position very short-sighted.

That said, clearly the union has to give; has to agree to revised work rules; has to allow reassignment of its members to operations where they are most needed. Unions are often stubborn about reform. With the T, reform is urgent on all fronts. Let the union rethink its work rules and thereby prevent outsourcing that almost certainly will bring its own problems much less easily solved than problems in-house. A new T union contract is at hand. I look forward to seeing major reform affecting its outcome.

Is outsourcing never preferable for the T ? Of course it can be useful. Operations like advertising, real estate management, website monitoring, social media, and data programming are not core MBTA operations. These can be outsourced to private companies and probably should be.l

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere