Merging MBTA with DOT is a bad idea

Independence, with more checks and balances, is best route

THE JOINT COMMITTEE on Transportation seems to want to have its proverbial cake and eat it too. At its recent oversight hearing, House Committee Co-Chairman William Strauss suggested that the MBTA be further folded into MassDOT; while Senate Committee Co-Chairman Brendan Creighton inquired if the governor’s office interfered in reporting of derailments. The Transportation Committee cannot have it both ways. Consolidating the MBTA more into the Department of Transportation would only increase political interference, or the at least the perception of political interference. These two things are at direct odds.

In 2009, so-called transportation reform merged the T into the Department of Transportation. This reform promised hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from the elimination of redundant positions, which the public was told would be re-directed to upgrades and maintenance of the MBTA and the highway systems.

Thirteen years later, it seems clear that none of this came to pass. Indeed, just six years after this so-called reform, the MBTA stopped being overseen by the Department of Transportatio Board of Directors, with oversight transferred to the Fiscal Management and Control Board, which was nearly universally regarded as a success. In addition, rather than shedding employees to eliminate redundances, the MBTA and MassDOT’s headcounts are higher than ever, costing significantly more then would have been the case if the MBTA remained independent. Doubling-down on a bad idea is not the solution.

Prior to the so-called reform in 2009, the MBTA acted independent of the sitting gubernatorial administration, sometimes acting in its own best interests, and sometimes in the best interest of its customers. It rarely, from what I witnessed, took account of what was best politically for the sitting administration in its decision making.

Since 2009 the T has, for all intents and purposes, been part of the executive branch. Gov. Charlie Baker, to his credit, fully embraced this and today’s MBTA acts like and considers itself part of the Baker/Polito administration. Hence MBTA leadership’s seeming deference to the governor’s chief of staff on media disclosures, as reported earlier this month in the Boston Globe.

The Joint Committee on Transportation needs to decide what it wants — more transparency or more deference to the executive branch. If the MBTA is further consolidated into MassDOT, the political desires of the sitting administration will always come first, far ahead of those of the riders when bad news is involved.

Democracies work best with checks and balances. The full-time Legislature, rather than ceding more authority to the executive branch, should empower itself, and other levels of government such as municipalities, to hold the T accountable. Instead of further consolidation, the MBTA should be freed from the Department of Transportation. An independent MBTA, overseen by a strong board of directors and checked and balanced by an empowered MBTA Advisory Board, will force the MBTA to stand on its own merits, and be transparent about its wants, needs, trials, and tribulations. An operating entity of the Department of Transportation will simply kowtow to the next governor. Good luck getting information out of the T then.

Brian Kane is executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.