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MBTA's acting general manager reflects on his longer-than-expected tenure

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  December 14, 2012 09:00 AM

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If the MBTA’s original plan had been carried out, Jonathan Davis would have been replaced as head of the T last December.

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Jonathan Davis
Instead, his last day as acting general manager will be Sunday, following an extra year at the position that came with numerous successes, but also many challenges, none more difficult than implementing controversial fare hikes and service cuts to balance the agency’s annual budget.

Still, Davis described the overall experience as positive: “challenging, but fun.” And, he looked on the bright side of many aspects of his tenure.

He even found a silver lining to the T’s service reduction and fare increases that began in July after months of emotional public outcry, including many face-to-face interactions with riders at a series of 31 public meetings, which Davis attended all of except four.

“We had some tough conversations with our customers. But, I believe it has opened up a longer term discussion on adequately funding public transportation in Massachusetts,” Davis said by phone Thursday. “What we’ve heard is people want more service and we’d like to do that but it really boils down to having adequate funding.”

It’s not a total surprise Davis likes discussing dollars. Before he began his 16-month stint as acting general manager, he was the MBTA’s chief financial officer for more than 10 years. He will return to that job starting on Monday and he said he looks forward to continuing to talk about long-term ways to fund the Bay State’s mass transit, highways and bridges.

“We’re fortunate to live in an area where most people are very passionate and supportive of public transportation,” he said.

Davis said other highlights during his time as acting general manager include how the T set record ridership figures and continued to post strong system-wide use after the service cuts and fare hikes took effect.

He also was particularly proud of several steps the agency took to improve customer service, like launching new ticketing and public safety smartphone applications and installing electronic train arrival countdown signs inside stations.

A husband and father of two, Davis, 64, rides the T every day. He takes a bus from his home in Medford to Haymarket and then rides the Orange Line to get to work.

“What I’ve loved about this job is the customers and the employees,” he said, expressing thanks to both groups. “It really has been an honor to represent all 6,000 men and women at the authority. It gave me a great appreciation for how hard all of our people work every day.”

But, Davis’ time as T chief has included some hurdles. Despite launching a first-ever campaign to promote more courteous behavior toward T employees, allegations of riders assaulting operators have not seemed to slow. Drivers have also been accused of misconduct. While some major construction projects have wrapped up, slow progress on some work, as well as day-to-day service delays, persist.

"Jon from the first day jumped into a very difficult situation and just handled it I think beyond anyone's expectations," state transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said by phone Thursday. "He just did a terrific job."

"In many ways, he's led the T through some of its most difficult times in recent history," Davey added. "He did it with class. He did it with grace. He did it engaging our customers and listening to their concerns. He was also a big supporter and appreciator of all of our employees as well and really has a sincere devotion and concern for them."

Davis took on the leading role in Sept. 2011 on an interim basis as the T began to search for a replacement for Davey, the former general manager who was promoted to head of the state transportation department. When Davis was named acting general manager, he was not being considered to take the job on a permanent basis. State officials also said then that they only expected him to fill in for about two months.

But Davis said this week that it became clear relatively early on in his tenure that he would probably be needed for longer than that. He said he was never fazed and has no complaints about his extended time in the role, saying that “it actually has gone by very quickly.”

“I was prepared to serve however the Secretary and the board wanted,” said Davis, who has worked for the T for nearly 18 years. “I appreciate the opportunity they gave me.”

In 2011, when he took on the agency's leading role, he made $147,600. This year, Davis' salary was $1,500 higher, which represents a year-to-year increase of 1 percent, the agency said. Beverly Scott, who will start her new role as general manager of the MBTA on Monday, is set to make $220,000 ­annually.

When asked about his future, Davis reiterated that he’s ready and happy to do whatever his superiors ask.

His bosses are happy he'll continue to help the T try to sort out its finances.

"It's no secret that the MBTA and our entire transportation system faces yet another fiscal crisis this year because we continued to not get to the root of the problems," transportation secretary Davey said. "Jon is going to be an important part of [incoming general manager] Beverly Scott's and my team to, we hope, solve this once and for all."

Davis said he expects Sunday, his last day as acting general manager, to be like most others -- busy.

“I understand we’re going to be seeing some snow next week, so we’ll be working to get the system ready for that.”

Still, he maintained an upbeat outlook.

“I love working for the MBTA," Davis said. "I’m having fun every day.”

E-mail Matt Rocheleau at mjrochele@gmail.com.
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