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Bill looks to restrict MBTA employee benefits

The Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation heard a bill to eliminate free rides for Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority employees on Thursday at the State House.

Rep. Steven Howitt, of Seekonk, proposed a bill to bar active and inactive members of the MBTA from gaining free access to the transportation system while off duty.

Howitt, who was not present at the hearing, cited statistics of free riding at 2.2 million trips for 6,288 current employees and 137,099 for 5,247 retirees.

Members from the Boston Carmen’s Union, the MBTA’s largest union, came to oppose the bill.

“One hundred thirty thousand retirees riding the system – that’s like decimals to us,” said James O’Brien, vice president of the Boston Carmen’s Union.

With 380 million rides taken last year, those decimals sit at less than one percent of all MBTA trips in the past year, and even that fraction could be an overestimate, O’Brien said.

He said that CharlieCard taps and actual bus, trolley and commuter rail rides are different.

“It’s 2.2 million taps, not 2.2 million rides,” he said.

O’Brien said that when entering a bus, train or train station customers must tap their CharlieCard to ride. However, an employee may tap their CharlieCard for more than just a trip to Harvard Square.

They may have to enter or re-enter to help a customer or fulfill their duties, he said.

“Some customer service workers tap their badge 50 to 60 times in a given hour,” said Larry Kelly, a union delegate. “The numbers are not as real as they suggest.”

Richard Guiney, a Boston Carmen’s Union member, said these numbers had already been taken into account when deciding wages.

“There is no fraud here. This is not a free ride,” Guiney said. “The free access is included in the wage package.”

The MBTA has been dealing with significant financial issues in the past that will affect their service in years ahead.

In the 2012 fiscal year, the MBTA will operate under a $150 million deficit.

Kelly said that there may be another way to increase revenues without denying retirees their benefits — more jobs.

“The T isn’t realizing their full revenues because it’s understaffed,” he said.

Kelly said that students and others who push through entrances without paying cost the MBTA substantial revenues, and that with someone to make sure everyone taps their CharlieCards, there could be massive profit increases.

O’Brien said the bill is important for any chance of incoming revenue.

“This is a bill of collective bargaining,” he said. “We have given up wages in the past to protect this privilege…it would be a shame to take the collective bargaining out of our hands.”

Other members at the hearing said they agreed, including Kelly and the House chairman of the committee, Rep. William Straus, of Mattapoisett.

“This is an issue that is actively at the table,” said Straus. “My hope is that with successful collective bargaining, some resolution can occur.”

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