Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian


Despite repeated outsourcing failures, MBTA eyes privatization of core services


The MBTA, the right wing Pioneer Institute, and a cadre of lobbyists are continuing their expensive and controversial push to outsource and privatize our public transit. It’s time to ask what the outcomes have been of such efforts so far in the Bay State.

The answer is that recent attempts to outsource MBTA services have been disastrous and costly. For-profit Keolis running the commuter rail system has been an expensive, scandalous nightmare. Massive protests and filthy platforms finally forced the administration to yield on its failed janitorial outsourcing gambit. And now, the Maine Military Authority has drastically underbid and delayed a key bus repair contract outsourced to them for work that could have been done in Massachusetts.

The privatizers have whiffed on three big pitches. Now, they’re spending taxpayer dollars campaigning for a fourth, fifth, and sixth crack at it. What happened to three strikes and you’re out? The results show it’s time to bench the privatization shills.

In an effort to whitewash their failures, the privatizers recently spent $1 million in taxpayer funds on a “report” from Florida-based TransPro and the notorious outsourcing advocates at McKinsey & Company. The report leans heavily on unsubstantiated numbers. It calls for outsourcing and downgrading transit jobs that provide a key pathway to the middle class for working parents, women, and people of color.

Both sides of the aisle have recognized that outsourcing core services with Keolis was a catastrophe, so much so that the MBTA did not renew Keolis’ contract. And the FMCB has already moved to replace S.J. Services, who failed to provide adequate resources to employees under clearly unsustainable working conditions.

The privatizers and their hired guns are pushing an ideological agenda that says outsourcing always works out better, even though the evidence shows that’s just not the case. It’s bad policy that jeopardizes the retention of vital skills and expertise within the MBTA workforce.

As the Boston Globe reported, it was the ingenuity and hard work of the union machinists that has made the biggest difference in recent poor weather operations. The privatizers want to steal and denigrate the jobs of the union mechanics who invented the very machines that have saved the MBTA (so far) from experiencing another “Snowpocalyspe.”

Meanwhile, the privatizers have tried to take credit for the improved MBTA performance during recent snowstorms. The opposite is true. The dedication, sweat, and brains of frontline union mechanics have made the difference.

The privatizers have also tried to rationalize outsourcing bus maintenance by citing poor on-time performance. First off, it’s important to differentiate “on-time service” problems from maintenance problems. On-time service is driven by adequate operator staffing and service hours — unless buses are not making it to riders because they’re breaking down.

Do busses break down? Yes. That’s because the MBTA has the oldest bus fleet in the country among large city systems. Even so, public data clearly shows that breakdowns are not the problem causing sporadic MBTA bus service. In fact, when it comes to the quality and reliability of work being done in the bus maintenance division, data clearly shows that the MBTA far outperforms other transit agencies on key vehicle maintenance benchmarks.

The most important of these measures is “Mean Miles Between Breakdowns” — the average miles a bus will travel before it’s likely to break down. As presented in the Authority’s own Bus Maintenance Efficiency Study, MBTA buses average 12,946 miles between breakdowns. That’s the best record in the country, despite an aged fleet. Compare that to New York where buses were likely to breakdown after only 5,696 miles, or to Chicago, where breakdowns occur after an average of 3,008 miles.

The second-place system isn’t even close — New Jersey Transit with an average of 6,821 miles, a whopping 48 percent below the work of MBTA union members. Despite a less standardized and aging fleet, the MBTA’s maintenance division keeps buses running at a rate that sets the national standard.

When reliability is what riders want most, why would Gov. Charlie Baker and MBTA General Manager Brian Shortsleeve gamble on outsourcing or pushing out the mechanics who make these result possible? They promised a business-like approach, but instead they are favoring an ideological approach driven by the same kind of right-wing, libertarian think tanks favored and often funded by the Koch brothers.

In a recent panel on privatization held at Harvard, Northeastern University professor Neenah Estrella painted the picture clearly, “Privatization can only reduce costs to government by limiting access to the service, lowering the quality of the service, or impoverishing the workers. Privatization removes any real public accountability for the provision of those services.”

What’s being proposed by Transpro and McKinsey in their $1 million propaganda report is an effort to keep the workforce, but to just pay them less. These calls to outsource middle-class jobs at the MBTA stands in stark contrast to a study released last year by The Brookings Institution which found that Boston already has the greatest income inequality of any large city in the United States.

Just last year, the Center for an Urban Future released a study that highlighted how the booming transit sector in New York has led to more middle-class jobs. They argue that transportation jobs can be “catalytic” for low-income populations to find more upward mobility, since they are one of the few job sectors that pay good wages and are accessible without a college degree.

Outsourcing does not have the support of most American voters either. In a national survey commissioned by the National Employment Law Project, voters see “contracting out” as serious problem for workers and for our economy. Five to one voters saw the increase in contracting out work that has happened over the past 10 years as a “bad change.”

Voters, riders, and workers agree that it’s time to push back on the privatization fairy tales, and to invest directly in public transportation. It’s an approach that doesn’t fit the philosophy of the administration’s hired gun consultants, but it’s what’s right for Massachusetts.

Craig Hughes is a Special Representative with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Eastern Territory which includes mechanics, machinists, fuelers, and other frontline MBTA bus maintenance and repair workers. Craig has twenty years of professional experience repairing and maintaining MBTA buses. IAM Local 264 is a member organization of Invest Now, an emerging coalition of MBTA riders, workers, and other stakeholders supporting investments to strengthen and improve public transit services and jobs.