- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has taken steps to improve performance, efficiency and transparency since a special panel assumed oversight a year ago, but the Boston transit system is still in “very tough shape,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday.

The Republican offered a detailed assessment of the MBTA on the anniversary of the first weekly meeting of the five-member Fiscal Management and Control Board. The board was created after record winter snows in 2015 crippled the system and exposed widespread managerial and financial problems.

A lot was done in the past year, Baker said, and a lot was learned. The T hired new leadership, reined in operating expenses, reduced employee overtime and absenteeism, and took initial steps to replace antiquated equipment, he said.

But much more was needed, he added, including new contracting procedures, updating administrative processes that were “light years behind the times,” and overhauling the T’s pension system.

“The good news? Every day, the T manages to safely move over a million riders from where they are to where they need to go,” Baker said. “The bad news? The T was in - and is still in - very tough shape.”

Josh Ostroff, partnership director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a group that advocates for riders, applauded the management reforms but disputed Baker’s assertion that transit was not being underfunded by the state. Most users, he said, would likely remain dissatisfied with the T’s performance until more revenue was provided for the system.

Baker said his focus was on ensuring the T spent its existing resources efficiently and effectively.

Among key issues facing the control board as it enters its second year:

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FINANCES

Officials promise to continue holding the line on costs. MBTA’s operating expenses did not increase in the last fiscal year, the first time that’s happened in nearly two decades. This helped narrow a chronic operating deficit and allow the T to roll some of the savings into efforts at whittling down a maintenance backlog most recently estimated at $7.3 billion.

MODERNIZATION

The disastrous winter breakdowns of a year ago were blamed in large part on outdated equipment. Over the next five years, the governor said the T will double its spending on trains, buses, signals, switches, tracks and power systems. A task force assembled after the winter collapse found that for years the agency had failed to spend the full amount allocated to its capital budget. “A lot of this equipment is older than me. I’m 59,” Baker said. “A lot of it is older than my father. He’s 86.”

EXPANSION

The long-delayed plan to extend the Green Line to Somerville and Medford was put on hold again after a determination that its cost would be $1 billion higher than previous estimates. The board is now awaiting federal approval for a scaled-down version of the project. Plans for extending commuter rail to the South Coast are also being re-examined in light of new and higher cost estimates.

PENSIONS

The $1.6 billion MBTA Retirement Fund, long criticized for a lack of public accountability, is in “freefall,” Baker said. He expects to ask the Legislature in January to eliminate the T’s stand-alone pension system and merge it with the existing state employee pension fund.

PRIVATIZATION

Though bitterly opposed by the MBTA’s largest employee union, managers are studying a variety of options for privatizing some of its operations, including its cash management process. A recent audit of the T’s “money room” found among other things unlocked security doors, missing cameras and sunroofs that had been cut in armored cars that transport cash. “I don’t care if a service is provided publicly or privately,” said Baker. “The old way of doing things at the T is no longer viable or sensible.”

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