On July 21, the special panel created to address failures at the MBTA met to discuss and revamp several of its management policies. The fiscal and management control panel listened to multiple hours of findings by the Department of Transportation regarding the routine problems of the MBTA. During the meeting, in referencing the $7.5 million in penalties collected from Keolis because of delayed trains, Frank DePaola, acting general manager of the MBTA, noted that the penalties would revert to Keolis, in part, to pay for an increase in the number of fare collectors on board the commuter trains.
This is an emergency, and we all understand that the focus has to be on upgrading service now. That means getting Keolis actually to collect fares. The obvious question is: isn’t Keolis supposed to do that work as part of its current contract? Implicit in that question is this one: why should the state forego penalties for something that is in the existing contract with Keolis? Why the subsequent sweeteners?
Again, this is an emergency situation, but the practice of directing penalties for specific improvements should be undertaken with caution. It should not continue without question – and in fact the state should make clear that it is an exception. Moreover, every dime of penalty money should be monitored closely, with full public transparency to see how it is spent and the results achieved. The last thing riders need is the sense that Keolis was dealt a get-out-of-jail-free card and won’t feel the financial pain from the travesty of last winter.
Pioneer bloggers have discussed at length the problem with fare collection on the commuter rail, and how uncollected fares add to the substantial financial burden the MBTA faces; we would hope that the fiscal control board look towards automated toll collection as a long-term solution to collection woes and cost issues.
Furthermore, the contract with Keolis should be strengthened if the T has the bargaining power to do so. Monthly penalties for inadequate management of the commuter rail remain capped under the contract, which reduce the financial incentive to perform once the cap is reached. In the second year of the contract, caps are slated to rise—from the current maximum monthly fine of $868,850 to a maximum of $1.1 million.
In addition, the MBTA wants to levy fines on a daily basis instead monthly, believing the shorter intervals will eliminate the performance disincentive that would otherwise result towards the end of a month once the cap had been reached.
The meeting of the control board also discussed other issues, such as potential solutions that would reduce the number of delays. The convening of the fiscal control board should mark a turn for the better for the often-beleaguered public transit authority – but in doing so, the public needs utmost transparency. At the very least, transparency is a must when it comes to how these penalties, which are heading straight back to Keolis’s pocket, are spent.
Sabrina Chishti is a Transparency Intern at Pioneer Institute from Tufts University majoring in biology and political science.