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MBTA officers, Boston police vie for details at T work sites

The MBTA and the city of Boston are pitted against each other in a court battle about whose officers should be given lucrative overtime shifts patrolling T construction sites.

The dispute, which could affect MBTA projects across the state, began last fall when the city issued a cease-and-desist order to stop the MBTA from using its own officers to patrol the Huntington Avenue construction site on the Green Line.

In November, a judge allowed the MBTA to use its own Transit Police for the Huntington project until she made a final decision. Since then, the MBTA has completed the project, but the city and the MBTA are still waiting for the judge's ruling.

Yesterday, lawyers from both sides gathered in Suffolk Superior Court for their latest battle.

The city says it wants to ensure that officers who know the streets can ensure public safety. The MBTA says the city just wants to increase compensation for its own officers. Unions for the MBTA Transit Police and Boston police have joined the court fight on opposing sides.

"The only thing that's going on here is money," said Herbert Holtz, a private lawyer representing the MBTA. "They in fact bar other officers in favor of only one select class of officers, the Boston police. That tells the court everything."

A city ordinance requires street work sites to be patrolled by Boston police officers, paid at more than $30 an hour. But under state law, the MBTA can bypass local ordinances in certain cases. Massachusetts is the only state that requires use of police at nearly all road and utility work sites.

Boston police officers earned a base pay of about $46,000 in 2005. With overtime and detail work, some officers that year earned more than $100,000. Officers currently make $37 per hour for details. The city imposes a 10 percent surcharge on detail work.

At yesterday's hearing, Judge Geraldine Hines, who also heard the MBTA's original complaint, wanted to know more.

"What is it that the Boston police officers can do that MBTA officers can't do at these construction sites?" Hines asked the city's lawyer. "They're asking to use their own officers. I don't understand the city's concern about that."

Adam Cederbaum, a lawyer for the city, said that the transit officers do not have the same level of experience patrolling these kinds of sites.

"They're asking for control of our streets without any public responsibility," Cederbaum said.

Holtz said a judgment in favor of Boston would allow other cities to challenge the MBTA's use of its own officers in 102 communities in Massachusetts.

"The MBTA cannot be subject to balkanized, varying, local ordinances," Holtz said. "There will be hundreds of towns imposing restrictions on the MBTA, crippling it."

Michael Flanagan, president of the MBTA Police Association, attended the hearing with two other transit officers.

"We're more familiar with the city than the city officers would be familiar with the transit environment," Flanagan said later.

Thomas J. Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, said union members were less concerned about their pay than making sure the city's ordinance is honored.

"It's about right and wrong," Nee said. "It's about the law. This isn't about the money."

Hines said she will announce a ruling in September.

April Yee can be reached at