Keeping Public Transportation Public

Tensions have flared between MBTA workers and their leadership in recent weeks after plans were announced to consider outsourcing many of what are now union jobs. Governor Charlie Baker believes performance and cost effectiveness are the ultimate goal, regardless of whether that is achieved by a public or private system. Facing aging infrastructure and equipment, increasingly harsh weather conditions, and a $100 million deficit, the T leaves no doubt that improvements have to be made. For many, including the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, this means looking to the private sector for things like the operation of part warehouses and maintenance of railcars. These responsibilities currently belong to union workers, but many argue they have been inefficient and ineffective in their work. Proponents of privatization argue that the private sector is a breeding ground for competition—competition that should theoretically equate to improved performance. But privatization doesn’t always ensure better performance, and with so many union jobs at stake, we need to consider what cost-cutting actually cuts from our communities.

Keolis, the private company that runs the Commuter Rail, is a perfect example of how privatization doesn’t always bring about the desired results. Aside from losing an estimated $35 million a year due to its inability or unwillingness to collect fare properly, Keolis has long been criticized for delays and poor service. The apocalyptic winter of 2015 absolutely crippled the Commuter Rail, and Baker was one of Keolis’s biggest critics. It was not some privatized, well-oiled, and unstoppable machine that kept running in the face of disaster. Rather, at the height of the storms, canceled trains left hundreds stranded and nearly 67 percent of trains ran late in the month of February alone.

So if the privatized Commuter Rail has already proven faulty, why is there a push to outsource still more MBTA services? It would seem the powers that be need a scapegoat for the T’s fiscal and performance woes. But it certainly shouldn’t be the people who have slaved to keep a broken system running. Cutting jobs or outsourcing work to the lowest bidder backed by cut-rate labor isn’t going to help an already failing system.

MBTA employees are one of the only reasons why public transportation is still worth taking. For every million stories I’ve heard about bad experiences on the T, I’ve not heard or had one bad experience with the devoted people who run it. I’ve been commuting to school in Boston for just shy of a decade, and I have never seen an MBTA employee act anything but courteous and committed. And why shouldn’t they be? The middle-class jobs these privatization and outsourcing efforts are targeting belong to members of our own community. Just as our public transportation system snakes its way through the city of Boston and her suburbs, so too does it run vein-like through our community. And every day those veins, the varied multitude of MBTA lines, carry our fellow citizens, the lifeblood of our community, to and from where they need to be. MBTA workers belong to this community, and so do the families they raise. Their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters ride this system alongside us. Whenever the T is delayed, you can guarantee some MBTA worker’s spouse is late for work, or her child for school, or her aging parent for a medical appointment. They too have an emotional stake in the system, in addition to a professional stake. Their devotion stems not just from a commitment to the community but by the very nature of the fact that they exist within the community.

Every day these hardworking people continue bailing out a ship that has been taking on water for years. You see it in the MBTA employee who has to figure out how to get an old, rotten, and rusted-out Green Line train back to the station after it loses power. The employee who is going to take dirty looks from ungrateful passengers because of an unavoidable mechanical delay and go home late to his or her family, just the same as you. It’s that same MBTA employee who gets up exhausted the next day, puts on his or her uniform, and announces the stops on the line in a funny voice so that people will have something to smile about on an otherwise miserable commute. Despite what management might think, that employee isn’t the cause of the T’s woes. In this rider’s opinion, employees like that are the only thing keeping this broken wheel turning.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor