May 7, 2019

MBTA alters approach to system upgrades

Photo/Grant Welker
Commuter rail passengers prepare for boarding a train to Boston at Worcester's Union Station.

At a time when frustrated riders are calling for immediate investment to make public transit more reliable, the MBTA's general manager wants to more gradually spread out capital spending to give the T more time to hire the people needed to oversee the work.

Steve Poftak, who took over as head of the MBTA in January, told the authority's oversight board Monday that the figures outlined in the existing five-year capital investment plan — a 66 percent jump in spending for expansion, reliability and modernization projects — is "not something the MBTA will be able to execute."

Instead, he suggested a new model with smaller but steady annual increases for those categories.

The plan to ramp up spending more gradually rather than frontloading it may result in some reliability work being delayed from current timelines, though Poftak did not identify specific projects that will be affected.

The change would give the MBTA time to add the staff and capacity needed to spend at least $1.5 billion per year on maintenance by fiscal year 2024, officials said, and bring the entire transit system up to a state of good repair by 2032.

"That's the spending that is going to rebuild the system and create a reliable and dependable MBTA that we want to run," Poftak said. "...By focusing on the whole five years and, in fact, the whole 15 years, it could mean you don't spend as much this year, but you get those contracts in place and those studies in place so we're ramping up."

Poftak's plan involves hiring another 80 full-time employees to focus on capital projects, bringing the staff up to the budgeted level, and a high-ranking official to oversee those programs.

"The T's current problem is not the availability of resources," Baker told reporters. "I've said this many times. The T's current problem is being able to actually organize and spend the money that's been made available to them." Baker called the hiring plan needed to set up capital spending "the right move."

The MBTA still plans to spend $8 billion on improvements in the next five years, Poftak said, and the inclusion of Green Line and South Coast rail expansion will push some maintenance spending to a later date.

Existing challenges with completing projects, Poftak said, come from "a combination of factors."

"We've identified staffing as one issue," he said. "It's a complicated piece of work to continue to run the system as much as we can while fixing it. If we could do a multi-year shutdown of some piece of the system, it would make it a lot easier. We have to fit in a lot of these repairs around a system that's running. I'd also say there are aspects of public procurement that are very demanding that make it harder for us to do things quickly."

The maintenance spending would plateau at a minimum of $1.5 billion per year by 2024, nearly double the current rate. Because the baseline would gradually increase rather than sharply increase and then sharply decrease, Poftak said the MBTA can meet its goal of completing the entire existing maintenance backlog by 2032.

Poftak said some projects may not be completed as initially scheduled as a result of the change in approach.

"One of the things we're trying to get right here is to increase the amount of capital spending," he told reporters after Monday's meeting. "We already have programs programmed in a specific year that are happening later than I'd like. We're still trying to push as much as we can responsibly, but there are going to be some things where a source of funds has been identified but we might not get to them for a year."

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