- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Key findings of “Back on Track: An Action Plan to Transform the MBTA,” a report prepared by the special commission appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to examine the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

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UNSUSTAINABLE BUDGET

The MBTA has a “severe imbalance” between expenses and revenues and would be insolvent without state subsidies, the report found. Operating costs are rising at an average rate of 5.25 percent - twice the rate of inflation and more than twice the average annual growth in revenues. MBTA fares are “significantly lower” than similarly-sized U.S. transit systems and fund only 39 percent of the T’s operating costs, excluding debt payments.

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CAPITAL SHORTCOMINGS

The MBTA has spent only $2.3 billion of the $4.5 billion allocated for capital improvements and construction in the past five years. While the reason for this is not entirely clear, the panel says it contributes to a “chronic underinvestment” in the system while contributing to a state of good repair backlog estimated at least $6.7 billion and likely higher. The panel also noted that in the current fiscal year, the T is expected to use $66.5 million in capital funds to pay salaries of 444 workers.

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PROJECT DELAYS

“The MBTA struggles to get projects of all types out the door,” the panel said, contributing to delays in modernizing aging infrastructure. Delays in long-planned projects such as the replacement of the Government Center station and procurement of new Red and Orange line trains were cited in the report.

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LABOR ISSUES

In one of the most pointed sections of the report, the panel said weak management and onerous work rules contribute to low productivity and soaring overtime costs. Labor contracts are often extended automatically until a new agreement is reached, leading to big retroactive wage hikes, and the MBTA union is the only public employees union in the state with binding arbitration settlements that do not require further approval of some kind. Including vacation time, MBTA employees, on average, miss 57 working days a year. High absenteeism among employees was blamed for thousands of missed bus trips and poor customer service, the report said.

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SHORTSIGHTED EXPANSION

The MBTA lacks a cohesive, long-range expansion strategy, resulting in the expenditure of billions of dollars on projects that expand the transit system without addressing its most immediate and serious maintenance needs.

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Among the panel’s key recommendations:

-Create a fiscal and management control board to oversee the MBTA for the next 3 to 5 years. The five-member board would consist of three members appointed by the governor, one named by the president of the state Senate and one by the House speaker.

-Pursue new revenue opportunities including raising or restructuring of fares.

-Consider the possibility of the state taking over payment of the so-called Big Dig debt, a reference to the $1.8 billion in debt the MBTA assumed for transit projects that were part of the massive Boston highway project.

-Build a “firewall” between the MBTA’s operating and capital budgets, and prepare 5- and 20-year capital plans to address the T’s estimated $6.7 billion maintenance backlog.

-Develop a plan to substantially reduce absenteeism among employees and consider changes in the collective bargaining process to reduce overtime costs and increase labor productivity.

-Place a moratorium on all MBTA expansion except projects paid for with federal funds.

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Source: Governor’s special panel to review the MBTA

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