Finding a new way to make a difference

Now I help shape public policy through advocacy, writing

I KNEW I WOULD LIKE Rocketman, the Elton John biopic. I love his music, grew up with it, and I’m proud to say that I know the actual lyrics to Rocketman and Bennie and the Jets. The movie did not disappoint – what a great performance by Taron Egerton — but it did surprise me in one way: I did not realize how deeply one of Elton’s songs would resonate with me.

At the end of the movie, having moved from fame to the depths of despair and back again, he sings, “I’m Still Standing.” My reaction was visceral: This was how I felt about my own life at this moment.

I’m still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid”

It’s been 10 years since I was the state secretary of transportation, 10 years to reflect on (sometimes obsess over) that experience. It was a brutal experience, one I was largely unprepared for, despite having spent so many years in public service. I did not fully grasp that becoming secretary in the middle of the Great Recession would require me to become a pretty unpopular guy pretty fast.

The fiscal situation was bleak: a Turnpike Authority facing bankruptcy, an MBTA facing an operating deficit in excess of $100 million. The capital needs for both transit and highways were great, thanks to decades of disinvestment following the Dukakis years. I knew this when I took the job because I had served on the Transportation Finance Commission, but I was not anticipating the massive blowback that came when I called for a 19 cent gas tax increase to fund the levels of investment and reform that we believed at the time were critical to the very survival of a functioning mobility system.

I made it easy for the critics because I made my share of mistakes. I was determined to be outspoken and candid at a time when I might have been more effective taking a humble, low key approach. I was right to call out “reform before revenue” as the misguided slogan it was (and has proven to be), but it cost me dearly with the then-incumbent leadership in the Legislature. I also said some pretty stupid things, in retrospect, and I own every single mistake I made. There were many days when I thought I could not catch a break, like the day when I discovered that the leak of our draft finance plan came from someone on my staff who in a million years I would never have imagined would do something like that.

One day, preparing for a speech before an advocacy group, I tossed out my prepared remarks and spoke from the heart. I spoke about my view that we were at a critical juncture, that we needed to level the playing field and devote more resources to public transportation, that the time had come to face some ugly truths about our auto-centric policies and begin to advance new approaches to providing quality mobility services to people across the Commonwealth. I found my voice that day, and it was a liberating experience.

The most painful thing for me upon leaving office was the clear sense that I had lost my ability to help advance the policies I care about. For me the job was never about anything other than making a difference, and I had lost that unique and powerful ability the moment I walked out of 10 Park Plaza as secretary.

For the next five years I worked for two global companies that kept me busy traveling to places I never would have imagined I’d see (hello, Dubai!). The work was interesting and paid well, but it wasn’t fulfilling. There were dark days, lonely days, when private thoughts found me questioning my self-worth in ways that, as I look back, were pretty scary. I had failed myself but, more punishing to me, more painful, was the stark reality that I could no longer be effective in influencing or advancing policies that would make a tangible positive difference in people’s lives.

Then two things happened that changed everything.

First, I finished and published my book The Vidal Lecture. This book was a true labor of love – I believed that the story of former Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Bonin was an important one that needed to be told and remembered. Writing for me has always been a pleasure and an outlet, and I worked on that book (my third) for years to get it right. A group of very good friends, organized by Bobby White, held a book signing event for me at the Union Club, and it was like a door opening for me – a door to the future. Having people come together to celebrate the book was a way for me to begin putting the past behind me and look ahead to new challenges, new possibilities. And it made me realize that writing would be a large part of my future.

Writing The Vidal Lecture opened up a new life for me. Around that time, I also began writing for CommonWealth. I never thought I would become a regular contributor to this magazine, the thought never crossed my mind. But I was initially encouraged by Bruce Mohl, the editor, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to share ideas, articulate policies, and develop my own thinking in a variety of areas. I have always taken the responsibility of writing seriously. It is a privilege, and I have tried as best I can to offer up specific solutions and candid assessments.

A few years later, then-Massport CEO Tom Glynn asked me to write Massport’s history. I initially balked, as I thought it would become the target for cynical second-guessing. I could hear the critics: Why commission a history of a public agency? Paying me to write it (it was in my view a generous amount but, in retrospect, not nearly enough given the level of effort that went into the task) would attract its own criticism. Tom persuaded me that having the history written would be a durable, useful tool for Massport employees over the years – learning lessons from their past to perform their jobs better. I was grateful for the opportunity, the book was well received, and now I’ve got four books under my belt (a fifth is in the works).

The second thing that happened to me was my introduction to TransitMatters. The opportunity to work with a group of young, talented people passionate about transit and rail has been life affirming. TransitMatters takes a technical, data-driven approach to its advocacy, and that means we drill down into the nerdy weeds doing something unique and meaningful. I can’t say enough about the people who make TransitMatters as effective as it is – the board members and leadership and our new COO, and also the many volunteer members who give tons of their time to the work we do. Being a part of TransitMatters has given me energy, hope, and vigor and opened my eyes to the reality that you can be effective and impactful even outside of government. I’m so grateful for having found them (or did they find me?).

And this brings me back full circle to my meditation on leaving office 10 years ago. It was, as I said, a brutal experience, painful and scarring, but I would do it again in a nanosecond. I want to make a difference, to follow my values and work to advance the things I care about, like sustainable mobility. I emerged from a dark time, full of dark thoughts, to a time of renewal and optimism. And I have many people to thank for that.

You will pardon me a little if I say that it gives me pride to realize, and to let you know that, in Elton’s words –

Meet the Author

I’m still standing after all this time.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation, a principal at Trimount Consulting, and a member of the TransitMatters board.