Defending her record in Atlanta, the MBTA’s next general manager promised transparency about her past service and about her plans to help lift the beleaguered T to fiscal health.
Beverly A. Scott, a former university professor who has spent 35 years working in public transit, returned Saturday to Boston for the first time since being selected by the state’s transportation board in September — the same day an audit by the international firm KPMG found Atlanta’s transit system to be in deep financial trouble.
Highly regarded nationally and heavily courted by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, Scott will become the first woman and second African-American head of the T when she takes the post Dec. 17.
But during the course of five years leading the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, her relationship grew strained with its board. Last week, the Globe reported that the board in 2010 paid $144,000 to a business psychologist to help Scott and her leadership team improve their management styles.
In a colorful and wide-ranging two-hour interview on the first of a four-day swing through Boston, Scott sought to clear the air. She said she had requested the audit and that MARTA’s difficulties reflected the challenges that have beset many transit agencies: aging infrastructure, a staggering recession, an unfavorable tax climate.
Scott vowed to release every audit conducted during her time with MARTA — “I don’t shadow box” — and said she steered that agency toward solvency by cutting service, raising fares, and securing pension, wage, and health care concessions from labor even as she campaigned unsuccessfully to raise taxes for transit. She made no apologies for her leadership style.
“We’ve got to hit the ground running, and we don’t have time for [distraction]. I know I’m the right person for this job, and I came here to do the job,” Scott said. “I am not perfect, I am not God Jr., but I give it everything, and I don’t ask anybody to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself.
“I have great love and regard for folks, but at the same time, when you got to lead, you got to lead. And if I have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, then I’m prepared to do that.”
A widowed grandmother with a PhD in political science and the familiar manner of a homespun storyteller, the 61-year-old Scott greeted strangers with hugs, sprinkled her speech with aphorisms (“you don’t eat an elephant all at once”), and conducted Saturday’s interview in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel and while walking to Arlington Station, where she asked two employees to lock fingers with her for a “pinkie swear.”
She spoke of growing up in Cleveland’s riot-torn inner city, graduating from Nashville’s historically black Fisk University alongside her middle-aged mother, and succeeding in keeping off most of the 120 pounds she lost several years ago through gastric bypass surgery after a lifetime of failed diets.
But Scott was direct and firm about what she perceived to be undue scrutiny on aspects of her record, calling it “very unfortunate distraction stuff.”
“Look, I’m a public servant, always been a public servant, [but] I am not Simon Legree, I am not Idi Amin Dada ,” she said, invoking the slave master from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and the notorious Ugandan despot. “I’m very transparent, and who you see is who you get.”
Scott’s life story is as wide-ranging as her interview style. The only girl in a family with two boys, she is the daughter of a homemaker-turned-teacher and an airport porter who earned a law degree and became a university administrator.
She left home to attend Minnesota’s Carleton College on scholarship but returned after two years when her father suffered a stroke.
She followed her first husband to Washington and earned a doctorate from Howard University.
While teaching government and public affairs, she was selected in 1977 to spend 18 months with the city of Houston on a fellowship.
At a time when women and people of color were often steered toward neighborhood or public relations, she requested transportation or sanitation, considering them vital if unglamorous. She got transportation and never looked back.
Scott climbed the ranks in Houston and became an administrator with some of the nation’s largest transit agencies (New York City’s MTA, New Jersey Transit, Washington’s WMATA) before running them for Rhode Island and for Greater Sacramento and Atlanta, the country’s ninth-largest transit system.
Last summer, the White House honored her as one of its transportation “Champions of Change.”
Scott announced last winter that she would step down in Atlanta when her contract expires in December. Widowed when her second husband died in 2010, she planned to semiretire, moving closer to her son, granddaughter, and 82-year-old mother in Colorado.
But the MBTA, the nation’s fifth-largest system and steward of America’s oldest subway, was too good to pass up.
“Honey, the T is transit royalty,” she said. “It is old, fine wine.”
But Scott is clear-eyed about the T’s backlog of maintenance needs, its billions in debt, and the annual deficit forced by those crushing debt bills and a heavy reliance on one income source — a state sales tax that has lagged projections through recessions and consumer shifts to online shopping, joking that one mentor asked if she had “suicidal tendencies” when she said she was considering the job.
Despite the pitfalls, Scott called the Bay State vastly more transit-friendly than car-centric Georgia.
Though she believes transit leaders here and everywhere need to do a better job telling their story — that transit can be run more like a business but never make a profit; it requires subsidies globally as a public good, benefiting the economy, environment, and quality of life — she said this region gets it, illustrated by the thousands who attended the T’s fare-increase hearings.
And the Patrick administration is serious about working with the Legislature to address the state’s enormous transportation deficits.
“I would not have done this if I did not absolutely see real strategic alignment from the standpoint of the leadership,” she said.
Planning to meet with senior staff and tour the system this visit, Scott said she will immerse herself in the T’s inner workings but believes, as many academics and analysts do, that its problems are not waste but inadequate funding. She will scour for efficiencies but champion the call for more resources for the T and the state’s often-forgotten regional bus agencies.
“What they really need is they need me to help try to do the other part of this job, which is, ‘Let’s go get this money,’ ” she said. “We need money for [infrastructure] repair, we need money for operations and maintenance, we need money for expansion, and we need money for core capacity.”
At Arlington Station, Scott studied the T map, introducing herself to a woman nearby. The woman professed to being a newcomer, too, having just moved to Boston from Switzerland.
“Oh my god, that is so fabulous!” Scott said, greeting her first with a handshake and then a hug. “Gosh, well, I’m Beverly. What’s your name . . . Toyoko? OK, well, Toyoko, I will be moving here soon, so we’ll both discover it together.”
“Wish me luck,” said the woman, Toyoko Orimoto, a Northeastern physics professor.
“Wish me luck, too!” Scott said.