Taking Commuter Rail In-House?

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Bad idea.

At least that appeared to be the consensus at commuter rail forum held this morning by A Better City (to mark the release of their paper on commuter rail).

The event was structured around the idea of a public-private partnership as the next step in the operation of commuter rail. (The existing contract with MBCR expires in 18 months)

I raised the issue of the Patrick Administration’s interest in possibly pulling the commuter rail operation back in-house. From March of this year:

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said the MBTA, a state agency, is eyeing a potential takeover of commuter rail operations when the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company’s contract expires in June 2013.

“We’re going to look at all the options,” Murray said. “Can we do things more efficiently and at the same time ensure that we’re meeting the needs of our customers? Is it something we can do internally? Is it something we want to do internally? What are the pros and cons of it?”

Now, its possibly to read that as being open-minded or trying to light a fire under the current operator. However, its a very public foray by the second highest executive branch official into an upcoming procurement.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, after I raised the subject, the first speaker during the question and answer session, former Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, was quick to react, saying that the state should “definitely take the public option off the table” and that, in the context of an election year, it would be “a real mistake to think about pulling it in” (refering to commuter rail operation).

And he’s right. If we want to get qualified bidders, and several of them, interested in bidding to operate the commuter rail, Massachusetts needs to demonstrate that the process will be free of political interference.

One obstacle to that is embedded in the 2009 Transportation Reform Law. It established a public-private partnership commission that has approval authority over any potential commuter rail deal. The Commission has never been constituted and its not clear how it would act. But some potential players in the next gubernatorial election, including the Treasurer and Auditor, have roles.

The Administration chose to put it on the table in the first place; they can short circuit any potential mischief by taking it off.

Crossposted on Boston Daily.