Controversial New MBTA Plan from Governor Baker

The new governor has proposed a $82.7 million plan for upgrades to MBTA infrastructure and snow removal equipment, according to a recent article. The plan will be funded through a mix of federal dollars for capital investment and the MBTA’s own capital and operating funds. The plan proposes formalizing the use of prison labor to assist in snow removal, which the city used during this year’s particularly rough winter. Prisoners, making a few dollars a day, worked alongside union workers earning $30 per hour. This winter’s use of prison labor quickly stirred up controversy, though one could have possibly made the “desperate time/desperate measures” argument. Formalizing this unfair system takes it to the next level, so it will be interesting to see what the MassDOT Board thinks when it is officially presented with the plan on next week.

A recent op-ed by Shirley Leung in the Boston Globe has proposed increased reliance on privatization as a way to fix the MBTA’s woes. She sites the already privatized commuter rail and ferry functions as examples of ways for Boston to shed some of its admittedly costly functions. For example, a typical bus ride costs the MBTA $2.74 per passenger, while the new late-night bus service costs around $20 per passenger. Leung suggests outsourcing some late night and low-ridership services to Bridj, a relatively recent startup with a demand-based schedule. She also suggests cutting a deal with unions in order to quell fears of job losses.

In order for this to work, it would have to overcome what is known as the Pacheco Bill, created in 1993 to prevent then governor Bill Weld’s efforts at privatization. Governor Baker is working to “free the MBTA from the constraints of Pacheco.” The devastating effects of last winter have created widespread demand for something to be done about the MBTA’s aging infrastructure, but outsourcing work to cheap prison labor and inviting corrupt race-to-the-bottom contracting with private firms means the people of Boston need to keep a close eye on MBTA politics and how the city and state respond to their demands.