What’s going on with the MBTA?

Winter was a disaster for the MBTA last year.
The MBTA’s dreadful winter has caused the transit system to become Beacon Hill’s most prominent issue this spring. –The Boston Globe

Remember just a few short months ago, when the MBTA was all but not functional? (Actually, on some days, it plainly wasn’t.) The trains are running again—not necessarily well, but at least in that squeaky, oft-delayed way we’re all familiar with.

On Beacon Hill, though, the T’s troubles remain front and center as the most prominent issue of Gov. Charlie Baker’s first few months in office.

The system’s toughest days came during a series of snowstorms in late January and February, which started just weeks into Baker’s first term. They were characterized by widespread service delays and cancellations, the revelation that the T is more than $6 billion behind on needed repairs and upgrades, a skirmish in the press with then-MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott, and Scott’s resignation.

Advertisement

Polling coming out of the winter showed that Baker had a strong mandate to try and deal with the mess. In February, 81 percent of Boston-area voters told WBUR/MassINC that they felt fixing the T should be a priority for the governor.

What does Baker want to do?

As the T struggled through February, Baker convened a panel to dive in and look at the system’s problems. A month and a half later, the panel came back. It laid most of the blame on the T’s management systems, and it included a bunch of recommendations. Those recommendations formed most of the wide-reaching MBTA reform legislation Baker proposed last month.

One aspect of the legislation that has gotten a lot of attention is Baker’s plan to create a five-member “fiscal and management control board’’ that would have direct managerial oversight for the T.

The control board would provide new governance for the MBTA and would work exclusively on trying to fix the system. Although a temporary solution, it would exist for at least three years.

Who controls the MBTA now?

The T has been governed by the board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. For the first few months of Baker’s term, this meant that the new governor didn’t have much in the way of direct control over the T, because six of its seven members were installed by his predecessor, Deval Patrick. The seventh member is the state secretary of transportation. For Baker’s administration, that’s Stephanie Pollack.

Advertisement

But in April, Baker requested and received the resignations of every member of the MassDOT board (excluding Pollack), and he has made his own appointments since. So now his own choices oversee the Department of Transportation and by extension, the MBTA.

However, Baker’s proposed fiscal and management control board would be a separate, new structure to oversee the T for as long as it exists.

Some critics of the control board idea have said that since Baker already controls the MassDOT board, creating a new board is unnecessary and would just add another level of bureaucracy.

Baker and Pollack, though, have argued that a board specific to the MBTA—and not the rest of the state’s transit concerns—will be more hands-on and more focused, meeting more regularly and acting more aggressively in addressing the T’s problems.

So, is he getting that new board?

It’s looking pretty likely, but Baker faced a legislative challenge for a bit.

The state Senate sought to address MBTA reforms as part of its proposed budget. At first, the budget did not include any provision allowing for the new control board.

The omission led to further rallying in support of the plan from Baker, who broke out the terminology: “If nothing changes, nothing will change.’’He got a boost when House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he supported the creation of the board.

And as the Senate moved toward completing its budget, it opted to include the board, with some modifications to Baker’s plan.

Advertisement

The board, as proposed by the Senate, would give Baker the power to appoint all five of its members. In an effort to keep the two boards aligned, the Senate proposal would require three of the new board’s members to be on the MassDOT board. The new board would be required to meet at least three times per month.

Baker seems happy enough with the solution, saying in a statement: “Establishing a focused, dedicated group of experts to diagnose and fix the problems of the MBTA is an important first step toward creating the world class transit system the Commonwealth deserves, and I am pleased the Senate acted on this measure.’’

A key phrase there is “first step.’’ There are other things Baker wants that may still prove to be a fight.

MBTA’s winter woes in pictures(article continues below)

What else does Baker want?

Some elements are not controversial.

For example, everybody seems more than willing to grow the MassDOT board to include a few more members. Nobody seems to object to the idea that the MBTA should establish mid- and long-term capital plans, or that it should should try and find ways to maximize revenue through things like advertising, concessions, and real-estate holdings. The new control board would be directed to do both of those things, and more.

But other parts of the plan seem likely to form the basis of debate as lawmakers continue to consider the future of the T.

Such as?

The most controversial is a push to free the T from a law that requires the state auditor’s approval to contract out work done by public employees to private companies. This drew the concern of the MBTA Carmen’s Union, which immediately began to rally against this part of Baker’s proposal. The House’s budget would free the T from the law for five years, but the Senate has yet to show it’s willing to jump on board.

Baker also would like the new board to have the ability to increase fares at a sharper rate than the law currently allows. He and Pollack have said the goal wouldn’t be to increase fares right away, but to give the control board the ability to experiment with pricing. But this has been a point of contention for obvious reasons: Not everybody wants their commute to cost more.

And Baker wants to hold back more than $500 million in transportation funding from the state’s general fund between now and 2020.

What do critics say?

When Baker’s panel returned with its recommendations, some transit advocates were upset to hear they focused more on changing operations and management structures rather than emphasizing new revenues and investment in the system.

While the panel’s report says the intent is not to put reform before revenue—a common trope in the history of the T—it certainly does zero in on what it sees as generally poor inner workings.

Some transit advocates think that the T just won’t get fixed without new money. In April, Jim Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation who has called for more investment in the MBTA, wrote in CommonWealth magazine:

Let’s be clear: no one, myself included, is saying that the MBTA doesn’t need to significantly step up its game. We’d all embrace new MBTA leadership that is driven by strong metrics and performance, that finds creative ways to reduce operational costs while improving efficiencies, and that leverages technology to improve service quality and reliability. Let’s stipulate to that. But let’s also be realistic about the need for significant net new revenue. You cannot accelerate state-of-good repair needs without more money.

Baker’s plan has also taken some heat because analysis of the data that led to it turned up some faulty math. For example, in an analysis, CommonWealth found the math the panel used to detail employee absenteeism rates overstated the issue. Other numbers pertinent to the proposed reforms have also been disputed. However this criticism is relatively tempered, because while the report’s figures may overstate some problems, they are still problems.

The proposal Baker has put forward is what he wants. It’s looking certain he’ll get some of it. We’ll see if he gets all of it. And if he does, the next question will be whether or not it works. In any event, the effort will go down as defining his early months as governor, just as the troubles of the system defined his early days in office.

Loading Comments...

Close

Get the latest breaking news sent directly to your phone. Download our free app.