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Mullan to quit as chief of transit

Move comes after pay raise is denied; has been under fire over Big Dig woes

By Frank Phillips and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick’s embattled transportation secretary, Jeffrey B. Mullan, said he will step down by year’s end for personal reasons, a decision he said he conveyed to the administration in May.

Mullan confirmed his intentions yesterday after the Globe published an online report about his forthcoming departure.

The transportation secretary’s allies and administration officials emphasized that he made his decision long before the most recent controversy over the handling of a 110-pound light fixture that fell in a Big Dig tunnel in February.

Word of his departure came five days after the Globe reported that the falling fixture represented a bigger threat to public safety than Mullan had acknowledged and that, within days of its February crash, inspectors found nine other light fixtures that were corroding to the point that they could have also collapsed, but the inspectors did not report them. The Globe report created an uproar that has engulfed Mullan and his agency, already under fire for poorly communicating the depth of the problem.

But two people close to Patrick said Mullan, who became secretary in October 2009, said he had asked the governor for a salary increase in May because he was facing a financial strain from his children’s school tuition. He argued that his duties had greatly expanded since the 2009 state law that merged all the state’s roads, rails, and bridges under his authority.

When Patrick rejected his request, Mullan told him that he needed to return to the private sector and earn a higher salary, the people said. Mullan took a salary cut when he moved from his $160,000-a-year job as director of the now-defunct Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to become Patrick’s secretary of transportation in 2009, with a $150,000 salary.

Mullan’s statement yesterday explained his “intention to transition from the administration within the year for personal reasons.’’ He added that when he discussed the issue with the governor in May, he “made no final decisions regarding my future at that time. While I still intend to transition out this year, I have made no final plans.’’

Patrick, while upset over the way the light fixture problem was handled, has repeatedly expressed confidence in Mullan’s leadership of the agency. He reaffirmed that support yesterday.

“Mullan continues to be a creative and effective partner to this administration,’’ the governor said in his own statement. “Whenever he leaves, we will all feel that loss, and his leadership at MassDOT will be missed. I will continue to support Jeff and his family in whatever he decides to do next.’’

Mullan’s handling of the light fixture controversy, which he has openly acknowledged was problematic, was an embarrassment for the leader who had been charged with merging the state’s transportation bureaucracy. He fired the interim highway director following the February accident, and this week he suspended the Big Dig’s top engineer, who told the Globe he had been trained not to leave a paper trail documenting safety concerns out of fear of litigation.

Administration officials praise Mullan for the way he has been able to pull together warring factions, fiefdoms, and unions within the sprawling agency. But some critics say it remains a divided workplace.

Mullan’s departure is a blow to the Patrick administration, which would be forced to find its fourth transportation secretary since the governor took office in 2007. No other Cabinet position has had as much turnover.

“My inclination is that Jeff is next to impossible to replace and the governor ought to give him a raise to keep him,’’ said Frederick P. Salvucci, who served as transportation secretary from 1975 to 1978 and from 1983 to 1990.

Salvucci said Mullan, faced with the complex task of merging multiple transportation agencies, “has worked it better than I thought possible.’’ “It’s clear from the events of last week that old habits die hard,’’ Salvucci said, “and I don’t think the public can afford to lose the momentum that Jeff has created.’’

Mullan’s biggest challenge has been restoring public confidence in the agency, which has 4,000 employees, many of whom are still trying to emerge from the cloud created by the Big Dig.

“I think he’s done as good a job as a person could have done,’’ said Stephanie Pollack, a transportation policy specialist at Northeastern University. “It’s a really tough task.’’

But even as Mullan has drawn criticism in recent days from some Beacon Hill lawmakers, none have called for his ouster.

Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who serves on the Transportation Committee and demanded hearings earlier this week to review Mullan’s response to the light fixture hazard, said he believes that Mullan has done a better job than Patrick’s previous transportation secretaries.

“I’d prefer the guy stay on,’’ Hedlund said. “To have someone come in and try to get up to speed is going to be a problem. I’m not sure they have anyone in-house they can bring in.’’

Members of the Transportation Department’s board were also surprised by his announcement. Mullan met with the board Wednesday and did not mention he might leave. Ferdinand Alvaro Jr. said he had never seen anyone so passionate for the job.

Board member Elizabeth Levin said “he’s been a very good leader in many ways, and I think it’s a very difficult period right now.’’

“I support him,’’ she said. “Every season has things that are really strong and there’s a little bit of rain and there have been some events here that have been a little bit of rain, but we’re going to have the sun again soon.’’

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com

Patrick transportation chiefs

Bernard Cohen: Jan. 2007 - Jan. 2009

A former journalist, he had experience working on transit systems in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, but struggled to navigate the complex political duties of the job.

James A. Aloisi Jr.: Jan. 2009 - Oct. 2009

A veteran state transportation official, he was scrutinized because of his role as a behind-the-scenes player in the Big Dig and resigned after months of feuding with other transportation officials and elected officials.

Jeffrey B. Mullan: Oct. 2009 - end of 2011

A former partner at the law firm of Foley Hoag and a former state highway worker, he drew praise for overseeing the merger of multiple agencies into a new Transportation Department, but faced criticism for his response to a crashing light fixture in a Big Dig tunnel.