Governor Deval Patrick has dismissed all five members of the state transportation board, the first step in replacing the powerful panel that oversees Massachusetts highways and public transportation with a larger board structure approved by lawmakers last month.
In a letter dated Aug. 23, Patrick notified the board members of their dismissal and, at the same time, invited them to reapply for a seat on the new seven-member board that the Legislature, with little fanfare, voted to create last month at the administration’s urging.
Top Patrick administration officials say they will consider anyone who reapplies, but no one is guaranteed a position — raising the prospect that the makeup of board will be significantly altered.
The changes come as the Department of Transportation’s board grapples with major issues such as choosing a company to run the oft-criticized commuter rail service, now operated by the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co.
Board member Ferdinand Alvaro Jr. said he is skeptical that he’ll be invited back after his criticism of the commuter rail system, which is run by James O’Leary, a Democratic insider who mentored the Patrick administration’s top transportation official. Alvaro has faulted O’Leary’s company for frequent delays as well as several contract changes that reduced the financial penalties for poor commuter service.
“It’s no secret that I have been critical of the commuter rail contract, and that I have been pushing for a robust competition on the new contract,” Alvaro said, adding that he wants to continue to serve on the unpaid board. “But if the governor decides he is fed up with me, so be it.”
Richard A. Davey, the state transportation secretary, who had worked for O’Leary, said the administration has not ruled out Alvaro’s reappointment and doesn’t consider his frequent criticism any reason not to bring him back.
“We welcome his tough questioning on the commuter rail contract and other subjects,” Davey said. “That’s the kind of questioning and probing that at the end of the day gets us better contracts and better service.”
The reorganization comes a month after top transportation officials expressed great disappointment that only two companies committed to bid on the $1 billion-plus contract to operate the state’s sprawling commuter rail system, one of the biggest contracts in Massachusetts history. People who followed the process said some companies were scared off after deciding O’Leary’s company seemed to have the inside track.
Davey said in an interview that the administration pushed the reorganization through the Legislature with the hope of adding more expertise to the board, by expanding it to seven members and by making the secretary of transportation an ex officio member. The reorganization also eliminated a system in which the same five-member board acted separately to oversee MassDOT and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
“The reorganization was meant to streamline the process, not reconfigure the board,” he said.
Davey pointed out that the administration thought highly enough of Alvaro, a Republican, to reappoint him last year.
Another sometime critic of the administration, Liz Levin, also said she wants to be reappointed to the board, but isn’t sure it will happen. Levin has clashed with MBTA staff by pushing for more of its business — including deliberations over the commuter rail contract — to be conducted in open meeting.
“I’m clearly an independent voice on the board,” she said. “We have had our differences. They know where I stand on open governance.”
Davey said he could not say whether Alvaro, Levin, or other board members who could not be reached for comment will be reappointed, but he said all appointments will be made by Sept. 12, when the board is scheduled to meet.
“These appointments are important enough that careful reassessment is warranted,” Davey said.
Though the board will deal with an array of issues, the struggle to resolve the management of the state’s sprawling commuter rail system, which serves 70,000 commuters daily, may be the most pressing.
O’Leary’s company, which has run the system since 2003, has come under criticism for train delays — especially in the winter of 2010-11 — and for air conditioner break downs during one summer several years ago.
Alvaro sharply criticized a series of contract amendments Mass. Bay Commuter Rail negotiated with the T that gives the company financial rewards even when service was poor. He said the changes gave O’Leary’s company little incentive to improve, and he urged the T to consider switching management companies when Mass. Bay’s contract expired.
But despite a yearlong process during which the T searched for companies to compete for the commuter rail contract, only two of the 25 companies that expressed initial interest finally agreed to bid.
In addition to Mass. Bay, the other bidder is Keolis America Inc., a subsidiary of a French company that ranks among the world’s largest commuter rail companies, with contracts in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“There are only two bidders and the consensus seems to be that the result is preordained — that a lot of the potential bidders think the current operator is so politically connected it doesn’t make sense for them to bid,” Alvaro said. “If you believe in your heart there is no chance of winning — that’s why we didn’t get more bids. I had hoped for at least four or five.”
If he is reappointed, Alvaro said, he can fairly judge the two bids, including Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail’s.
“I don’t have any personal acrimony toward MBCR,’’ Alvaro said. “It’s not a personal vendetta.” Nevertheless, he said, he understands that some may regard him as being prejudiced against the company.
“Remember, there’s a lot of bucks involved here — the new contract will be billions of dollars,” he said.
Clarification: A page one story on the Massachusetts Transportation Board published on Wednesday may have given the impression that the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail system continues to experience chronic delays and air conditioning problems. In fact, the rail company’s on-time performance has improved since the winter of 2010-11 and air conditioner break downs have not been an issue for several years.
Sean Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.