Municipal input needed on next T oversight board

Debate over governance coming as control board nears sunset

THE COMING NEW YEAR will present significant opportunities to advance the cause of sustainable mobility in Massachusetts. It’s not too early to begin to focus on seven specific areas that can (if resolved properly) have a powerfully positive impact on regional and urban mobility and, by extension, our economy and our quality of life.

Those seven areas are (1) MBTA governance after the sunset of the Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB), (2) generating net new revenue through a “RGGI for Transportation” initiative (and ensuring that the revenue generated is directed to sustainable mobility initiatives), (3) initiating strategic pilots demonstrating the efficacy of regional rail including offering frequent all-day service and a commitment to electrification of the Fairmount Line, and a demonstration of electrification on the Providence Line commuter rail service, (4) significant expansion of dedicated bus lanes in inner-core communities, following from the successes in Everett, Arlington, Boston, and Cambridge, (5) making the current MBTA early morning and overnight bus service pilots permanent, (6) moving forward with completion of the design of a Blue/Red Line Cambridge Street connector, and (7) securing a commitment to accelerate work on the Newton intercity rail stations (a rail version of the accelerated bridge effort) in order to enable frequent all-day rail service between Boston and Worcester as partial mitigation for the impacts of anticipated I-90 construction.

I will have more to say about each of these, but I want to focus on the first topic today, because transit governance needs to be in the forefront of the public debate in the short term.  I was a strong skeptic of the Fiscal Management and Control Board when it was proposed in 2015, but I have become one of its strongest supporter. In part because of the quality of the gubernatorial appointments, and in part because of its hard-work, hands-on approach, the control board has set a standard for strong, steady, transparent and responsive transit leadership.  It will not be easy to replace this board with a new governance structure that is as effective.  Facing a statutory sunset in June 2020, the board this week will commence the process of public dialogue about MBTA governance going forward.

Transit governance is a significant contributor to the quality of public transportation services.  Quality of service (reliability, choices, affordability, commitment to maintenance, and state-of-good-repair) has a direct relationship to the accountability, experience, and longevity of those selected to direct policy and develop budgets and capital investment plans.  So, too, the essential creativity that marks an organization driven by innovation is something that needs to be nurtured and supported by a governing board. An October 2014 report developed jointly by the Eno Foundation and Transit Center explored how different governance structures help foster or hinder transit mobility and innovation. The report consisted of case studies of the governance of six US transit systems: Chicago, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It should be required reading for everyone who wants to be earnestly engaged in the debate about MBTA governance post-control board.

The report’s review of the MBTA described it as an “example of thorough consolidation: the state controls the region’s primary transit operator, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), through the state Department of Transportation. This consolidation has the benefit of giving the state a vested interest in funding the Boston region’s transit system, but it also has the drawback of diminishing the influence of localities. Due to the state’s large financial role, localities also do not make a significant financial contribution to the transit system, further undermining their ability to play a meaningful role in regional planning and investment decisions.”  The report found that the level of state control of the MBTA “has not always resulted in positive outcomes,” and that more local input would be advisable.

I have called for increasing municipal participation on any new MBTA governing board.  I believe this is critical for a number of reasons, not least that the MBTA increasingly must work collaboratively with cities and towns as we transition to a more rapid and agile bus transit system.  The recent well-received initiatives in Everett, Boston, Arlington, and Cambridge showcasing the benefits of dedicated bus lanes (and in Everett, level boarding) should not be looked at as one-off experiments.  These are leading indicators of a new approach to offering bus transit – one that reflects national and global best practices about how bus transit can be a powerfully effective way to combat urban traffic congestion and ensure mobility equity and sustainability.  The MBTA must work as never before in strong collaboration with these and other municipalities to introduce traffic signal priority, level boarding systems, and more expansive dedicated lanes.

Beyond this, mayors and city managers are fundamentally managers of complex organizations – they understand operations and maintenance and public sector labor relations and the myriad other issues that face the MBTA because they deal with these every day.  Their experience is uniquely applicable to an organization like the MBTA, and the T will benefit from their input.

Crafting MBTA governance in a post-control board world is not something that should be rushed.  The control board is doing a good job, and there’s no need to accelerate its sunset.  Rather, let’s use 2019 to have a thorough, transparent, and inclusive discussion about how to ensure that we get this right. Let’s look at best-practices in other transit agencies. Let’s consider what we think has worked best during the control board’s tenure, and ask: What is importable to a new governance structure?  How can we ensure that we won’t revert to a governing board populated by people who are appointed as political favors rather than on the merits?  These and many other questions will need to be asked and answered before decision makers and stakeholders are comfortable with a new governance construct.

When we embarked upon the transportation reforms of 2009, we thought that consolidating the MBTA and MassDOT boards, and moving toward a “shared services” operating model, would provide cost-effective benefits to the transit-riding public.  That proved largely untrue, or at least unachievable, given the scale and nature of the T’s needs and the internal dynamics of competing highway and transit missions.  The very need to create the Fiscal and Management Control Board stands as the best evidence that some of the well-intended organizational reforms of 2009 did not prove efficacious.  Let’s learn from the experiences of the past, and especially the past decade, and resolve to establish a transit governance structure that embodies the best elements of the current control board and responds to the reality of increasing partnerships between the T and municipalities.

Meet the Author

Governance decisions don’t, and shouldn’t, get made frequently or lightly.  They need to be made thoughtfully, wisely, and stand the test of time.  All transit advocates and transit users have a stake in this, and the time to engage it has come.

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