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T chief to be transportation secretary

Davey will replace Mullan; fourth to hold post in 4 years

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By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / August 5, 2011

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Richard A. Davey, general manager of the MBTA, was named yesterday the secretary of the Massachusetts transportation system, a vast network of roads and rails that is struggling with billions of dollars in unmet costs, low morale, and a lack of public confidence lingering from the Big Dig.

Regarded as a rising star in state government, Davey, 38, will take over on Sept. 1, becoming Governor Deval Patrick’s fourth transportation secretary in a little more than four years, a turnover that has underscored how the job seems to overwhelm even the savviest managers.

He replaces Jeffrey B. Mullan, who was criticized for failing to promptly alert the public when a light fixture fell in the O’Neill Tunnel in February, but was praised for overseeing one of the most ambitious mergers in state history: the abolition of the Turnpike Authority and the creation of a new Department of Transportation.

Mullan, who has indicated he was facing a financial strain from his children’s school tuition, will return to the job he held prior to entering state government, becoming a partner at the law firm Foley Hoag. Mullan has been secretary since November 2009.

In taking over the Department of Transportation, Davey will continue to oversee the T’s 6,000 employees, but will also take on an additional 4,000 employees and a much larger mission: managing buses, subways, commuter trains, and highways that millions rely on every day. In addition, he will oversee the Registry of Motor Vehicles, a target of frequent complaints.

Legislators and transportation policy specialists praised Davey’s selection, but said he is facing a herculean task.

The Transportation Department, which was created in 2009 with the merger of seven agencies, is still working to unite various factions in its ranks.

A 2007 report found that the entire state transportation network needed $15 billion to $19 billion over the next two decades merely to maintain its existing systems, in part because of the Big Dig.

Yet stability at the top has been in short supply: Not only has the department had four secretaries since Patrick took office in 2007, the governor ousted the acting highway administrator in May and a top Big Dig engineer earlier this week. He had blamed both men for failing to promptly notify superiors when the light fixture fell in the O’Neill Tunnel.

“Managing the transportation network in 2011 is as great a challenge as anybody faces anywhere in state government,’’ said Stephen J. Silveira, a private lawyer who serves as an adviser to the Transportation Department. “We have decades and decades of problems that need to be resolved, and they multiply with age. They don’t get better.’’

Silveira, however, said Davey will help stabilize the volatile agency.

“One of Rich’s greatest strengths is he has a great, calm demeanor, which can give everybody comfort and let managers carry out their day-to-day business,’’ he said.

At a press conference with the governor and Mullan, Davey, who often rides the Green Line from his home in the Back Bay to the State Transportation Building near the Theater District, said safety would be his top priority. He said he was also focused on continuing to unite disparate cultures within the agency.

“There’s a great opportunity to make improvements, not only because of the reform that Jeff has laid for us, but because transportation is so important,’’ Davey said. “People are rooting for us to succeed. That’s the bottom line.’’

Davey, who earns $145,000 a year as general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, will, as secretary, earn the same annual salary that Mullan received, $150,000. Davey’s replacement at the T has not been named.

In choosing Davey to be secretary, Patrick is turning to an insider who, while relatively young, is familiar with the complex politics of the position, which entails managing relations with lawmakers, unions, businesses, and commuters. Patrick’s first secretary, Bernard Cohen, had experience with transit systems in Philadelphia and other cities, but struggled to navigate the politics of a new state.

Davey took over at the T in March 2010. Before that, he was general manager of the commuter rail system. A Randolph native, he graduated from Boston College High School, the College of the Holy Cross, and Gonzaga Law School.

Davey’s tenure at the T saw ridership grow to record levels, even as the commuter rail system struggled with a winter of chronic delays. January was the worst month in three years for commuter rail, with 27 percent of trains running behind schedule. In February, nearly 1 in 4 commuter rail trains were late.

Yesterday, as he has in the past, Davey blamed the delays on aging equipment, much of which is being replaced. The governor also leapt to Davey’s defense, blaming Republican governors for financially starving the transit system.

“We’re dealing with a transportation system that is overburdened with Big Dig debt, and that has put a tremendous strain on the operation of this system,’’ Patrick said. “We’re doing a tremendous amount to try to keep up, but let’s be clear: Better management alone is not going to deliver the kind of system that the people need.’’

A prolific tweeter who often responds directly to commuter complaints on Twitter, Davey has shown a deft touch with social media. He said his proudest accomplishment at the T was making available real-time data for 187 buses, as well as the Orange, Red, and Blue lines, allowing programmers to create more than two dozen apps that track when buses and trains are due to arrive at various stops.

John Walkey - an organizer at Transportation for Massachusetts, which advocates for public transit - said Davey was almost always willing to listen to complaints about service cuts and other problems, even if he did not have the money to fix them.

“We have faith that he’s a good man for the position, because he certainly has practice trying to make something run with very little revenue to do it,’’ Walkey said. “The situation at MassDOT is going to be like the situation at MBTA, writ large.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.