BOSTON - As lawmakers wrangle over proposed reforms to the subway and commuter rail system, municipal and business leaders are lining up behind Gov. Charlie Baker's plans to fix the agency that operates the service.
Baker is calling for a special board to oversee finances and operations of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. He wants regular audits of the agency and to suspend a law that limits the privatization of public services.
Senate Democrats are rejecting the plan from the first-term Republican governor. They've called for a less aggressive approach, with a package of reforms that don't include an oversight board.
But municipal leaders whose communities depend on the MBTA -- many are Democrats representing cities and towns on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley -- are vocally supporting Baker's plan.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has called on Senate leaders to give Baker "greater authority to oversee the MBTA's operations" by approving his reforms. She said commuters have suffered from poor service, even after the city opened a new commuter rail and bus depot last November with an adjacent 700-vehicle parking garage.
"Even in winters with less snow, it seems that delays and cancellations are more the standard than the exception," said Driscoll, a Democrat, in a letter to Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, who chairs the Joint Committee on Transportation. "When the standard level of service is stranded commuters and visitors, a system needs to change."
Municipal leaders throughout the region echo her comments. They include Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo.
Many have reached across party lines to support Baker.
"There's no question that the system needs massive upgrades," said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, a Democrat. "I am hoping that with stronger oversight of the MBTA by the governor's office some of these changes will occur."
Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan, also a Democrat, pointed out that the MBTA's success is key to the economic growth of many communities, often determining where commuters and the companies their work for settle down.
"Our citizens rely on the MBTA to get to work, and therefore the success of their employers is also tied to the MBTA," Dolan wrote in a letter to McGee and other transportation committee members. "The challenge before us is bigger than any single political figure, labor union, business interest, or individual. We need to fix the T now!"
Business leaders are also advocating for Baker's reforms. They joined municipal leaders on Wednesday at the Statehouse to announce a coalition aimed at prodding lawmakers to approve the governor's proposal.
"This winter businesses across the commonwealth have all seen the costly effects of a broken transportation system," said David Begelfer, CEO of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. "They want to see a realistic short- and long-term plan to fix the T, once and for all."
Not to be outdone, the Senate's Republican minority is calling on Democrats to support several amendments to next year's state budget that include establishing a control board for the MBTA and a temporary suspension of the Pacheco law.
Named for Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, the law limits the privatization of certain government agencies. Baker proposes removing the MBTA from its reach, prompting a backlash from the powerful Carmen's Union, which represents T workers.
“For years we have been calling for reform of the MBTA, and now millions of T riders who were bitterly disappointed by a failing transit system know why,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, at a press briefing on Monday. “The time is now for the Senate to take definitive action to address the dysfunction of the MBTA.”
The Senate is expected to vote on the proposals this week as part of its $38 billion budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1.
Senate Democrats, who are increasingly isolated on the T reforms, were expected to caucus Wednesday evening to discuss the issue. The outcome of that meeting wasn't yet known.
After this winter's epic snowstorms crippled the MBTA, Baker tapped a task force to make recommendations and pressured members of the embattled state Department of Transportation's board of directors to step down.
In addition to appointing a control board and suspending the Pacheco law, he wants to remove a cap on fare increases and implement other changes to the MBTA's labor practices, budgeting and management.
House leaders have been closer to Baker on the reforms. The Ways and Means Committee, led by Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, recommended that the Pacheco law be suspended for five years at the MBTA.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Dempsey support a fiscal control board, as well.
“As I have stated consistently, the MBTA failures of this winter were completely unacceptable, and we must make the changes necessary to fix the system," DeLeo said in a statement Wednesday.
It's not surprising that municipal leaders are supporting reforms, said Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that supports Baker's reforms.
Local officials got an earful from commuters when MBTA service ground to a halt after the snowstorms, and they know they can't sit on the sidelines during the debate over the transit agency.
"Municipal leaders know that if this happens again, it's on their backs because they weren't vocal enough," she said. "They know they the need to act and that the way to do it is not by baby steps, but with significant reforms."
Christian Wade covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Massachusetts newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.