- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Gov. Charlie Baker called Wednesday for a financial control board to oversee the Boston-area transit system following release of a scathing report that said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was in severe financial distress, with ineffective management and no viable maintenance plan for vehicles and equipment.

“There is a pervasive organizational failure at the MBTA,” said Katie Lapp, the former head of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and co-chairwoman of the panel Baker commissioned after record-setting winter storms crippled the MBTA and left many commuters stranded.

The five-member fiscal and management control board, if approved by the Legislature, would replace the current seven-member board that oversees the MBTA. It would be responsible for the next 3 to 5 years for managing operating costs and revenues, examining labor contracts and leading a reorganization of the agency.

The panel also recommended several other changes including higher fares, a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism among T employees and a moratorium on expansion projects that are not paid for with federal funds.

While the report made clear that new state revenues would ultimately be required to fix the ailing system, members of the panel and Baker agreed it would be unwise to pump more money into the system until other reforms are adopted.

“The panel’s findings make clear at least to me that the T’s current way of doing business needs to be remade before it makes sense to invest significant sums of outside new money into its operation,” the Republican governor said at a Statehouse news conference.

The report also suggests that the state consider assuming the MBTA’s $1.8 billion debt for transit projects that were built in conjunction with Boston’s Big Dig project, as a way of relieving the agency’s crushing debt burden and allowing more funds to be used for operations and maintenance. The MBTA’s state of good repair backlog is currently estimated at $6.7 billion and likely to go higher.

The Legislature should review the T’s collective bargaining process with its labor unions, which have stood in the way of reforms, the report said. High absenteeism caused tens of thousands of bus trips to be canceled each year and 15 percent of all T employees took at least one sick day as the system was attempting to recover from the snowstorms.

The Boston Carmen’s Union previously called the absentee figures distorted because they included such things as maternity leave and military service. The union, which represents bus drivers and subway operators, issued a tempered statement on Wednesday saying it agreed with some of the panel’s recommendations but had concerns with others.

Fares paid by MBTA riders are “significantly lower” than those of other similarly-sized U.S. transit systems, the report said.

Baker stopped short Wednesday of calling for a fare hike, but he did say the agency should explore a variety of revenue opportunities including the sale of surplus property and cracking down on fare evaders.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat, told a separate gathering of business leaders on Wednesday that he did not believe the MBTA - which runs the nation’s oldest subway system - could become a world-class transit system under its current budget. But he agreed that the system must first win back the trust of riders.

“We use the excuse that we have an old system as cover for not really getting to the hardest parts of fixing this,” said the Amherst Democrat.

Rafael Mares, a senior attorney and transit advocate for the Conservation Law Foundation, cautioned that management reforms - while necessary - would not alone turn the system around.

“The T is subsidized because it provides such important benefits,” Mares said. “If you force it to live on its own revenue sources, the T will have to cut services.”

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