Politics

After recent MBTA accidents, some advocates are losing patience with Charlie Baker and state lawmakers

"I just don't know what the delay is."

Passengers exit the the MBTA Orange Line during their morning routines. Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

It’s been over three months since the MBTA had a dedicated oversight board meet.

In that time, the T has seen a Green Line trolley crash that injured 25 people, a Boston University professor fall to his death through a closed staircase across from the JFK/UMass station, a Back Bay escalator malfunction that sent nine to the hospital, and a slow-speed Red Line derailment that disrupted downtown service throughout the day Tuesday.

However, since the agency’s Fiscal and Management Control Board dissolved at the end of June, advocates have been waiting for Gov. Charlie Baker to fill seats of the successor governing board that would shed light on the incidents and ensure MBTA officials are held accountable.

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And they’re wondering what’s taking so long.

“These incidents have underscored the critical need for MBTA oversight and transparency before more lives are lost, injuries are sustained, and commutes are disrupted,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former state Sen. Ben Downing said in a statement Thursday.

Baker has the responsibility of appointing five of the seven new MBTA Board of Directors members. (The state’s transportation secretary, currently Jamey Tesler, gets an automatic spot, and the other seat is filled by the MBTA’s advisory board, which represented the 176 communities in the T’s service area and appointed Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch on Aug. 24.)

Baker suggested in early August — shortly after legislation was passed in late July to create the new board — that he would announce appointments in “four to six weeks.” However, more than eight weeks have passed, and no selections have been announced. Baker’s office said Friday that the administration is “in the process of finalizing appointments and will have an update soon.”

“I just don’t know what the delay is,” Brian Kane, the executive director of the MBTA’s advisory board, told Boston.com in an interview. “Everyone knew that [the FMCB’s] expiration was coming.”

Kane noted that the MassDOT Board of Directors, which has been tasked with overseeing the T in the meantime, had held two meetings since the end of June, neither of which included MBTA items on the agenda.

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“That’s not oversight,” he said.

Failure to appoint a new board is just one aspect of critics’ complaints.

Downing said the prolongated lapse is “alarming but unsurprising,” arguing that the Baker administration “has consistently failed to treat transit issues with the urgency these problems demand and our residents deserve.”

To ensure the system is well maintained and to take on climate change, Downing says “aggressive, targeted” investments in the MBTA are needed, in addition to “an accountable oversight body.”

Baker counters that his administration, which recommended the creation of the FMCB after the MBTA’s tumultuous 2015 winter, has invested in the system to an unprecedented degree.

“Find another administration that spent $5 billion on modernizing and upgrading the system that was horribly neglected for decades before we took office,” Baker told reporters Wednesday, as The Boston Globe reported.

And even some of the Republican governor’s most outspoken critics give him credit for pointing the MBTA in the right direction after decades of disinvestment. During a press conference Thursday outside the State House, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said Baker should be applauded for bringing the Green Line Extension over the finish line and implementing the FMCB.

“That board helped build the capacity in our transportation bodies, the T, to do big projects, to bring fiscal discipline, to unlock resources to do more,” he said.

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Still, they say the current approach isn’t enough. Advocates say the MBTA is the only large transit system in the country without a dedicated revenue stream for maintenance and improvement projects. Baker recently signed a $16 billion transportation bond bill — which steers $5 billion to the MBTA — in January. Kane says such investments are “historic and are more than welcome.”

“The state of good repair backlog, however, is much more significant than the amount of money that they’re borrowing to put into it,” Kane said, stressing the the bond bill invests money that will eventually need to be paid back.

Brian Kane, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, during a press conference Thursday calling on state officials to take action on public transportation safety and funding. – Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe

Kane’s group is “agnostic” about the source of the additional revenue, as long as it’s “stable and readily available.” While the MBTA currently has balanced its budget sheets with federal COVID-19 relief funds, watchdog groups say the agency could face “fiscal calamity” when the money runs out in 2023 or 2024. Some advocates point to a 2022 ballot question to create a 4 percent tax on annual income over $1 million to generate revenue for education and transportation as the answer, though Baker — who opposes the initiative — argues the state will get another chunk of money from an additional expected federal infrastructure bill.

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka also told the State House News Service in an interview Thursday that she’s “not certain that there’s a need for even more money” to address transportation issues.

However, Jarred Johnson, the chief operating officer of the advocacy group Transit Matters, said Thursday that the MBTA “doesn’t run on hopes and dreams,” adding that the Legislature “can’t afford to duck these questions about long-term funding.”

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“There’s no guarantee of funds from Washington, either because of political machinations or competitive grants, and the T will need state funding after those funds are exhausted,” Johnson said.

Kane also called on the Legislature to “step up finally and make the T solvent.”

“This cycle has continued for 20 years,” he said. “I want to stop having to have demonstrations outside the State House. I’ve been doing one for 15 years now. It’s time to stop.”

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