Time for me to say a few ‘thank yous’

I don’t mean to come across as relentlessly critical

I’VE BEEN AN ACTIVE and willing participant in the arena of politics, policy-making, and advocacy for most of my life. It’s what I like to do. It helps me understand and engage the pressing issues of the times we live in, and it fulfills my values. Engaging the politics and policymaking of any place, whether urban, suburban, or rural, is not for the fainthearted.  Partisan differences, ideological divides, and personal friendships and animosities all play a role in the public arena.  At its best, the civic debate is informed and inclusive; at its worst it is divisive and mean-spirited.

I’ve seen – and been subject to – both iterations. Since I left my most recent (I don’t say my “last”) public sector position almost a decade ago, I have focused on making a difference through advocacy, framed in a way that is informed, direct, and respectful. It occasionally occurs to me that this advocacy may sometimes come across as relentlessly critical, and I wanted to use this column as a modest effort to provide some balance, and to acknowledge some of the good work that has been done since the infamous winter of 2015.

When Stephanie Pollack was named transportation secretary, I wrote that she was “by any objective measure a first-rate choice.” She has proven to be a perfect choice for a governor whose comfort level is often in data-driven decision-making.

Stephanie spent a lifetime before this appointment as a lawyer working in the advocacy community, and expectations were high among many who knew her that she would champion progressive causes they believed in. If she has disappointed many of those same advocates, it is not because she misled them; rather, the disconnect runs directly to the role of a cabinet secretary and the unique relationship that each cabinet official has with her appointing authority. Pollack has understood that her brief is to fulfill the governor’s policies.  Following your own agenda, or freelancing, is not a recipe for longevity in office. She has described her role as secretary more as that of a lawyer representing a client than an advocate pushing for change, a perfectly understandable point of view.

Disappointments aside, I think it is important to acknowledge her achievements. There are several, including guiding the GLX project from potential collapse toward certain completion. Three others stand out in my mind today. First, her decision to reject the state highway department’s initial plan to rebuild the I-90 viaduct as another elevated roadway, and to advance instead a reconstruction and relocation of the turnpike at Allston Landing that follows an “at-grade” hybrid solution, was a decision of significant short- and long-term import. That decision enables many significant mobility and public realm improvements to take place. Many more decisions need to be made regarding construction-phase mitigation and final outcomes for West Station and the associated mobility and public realm eco-system, but the secretary’s decision to move forward with the at-grade reconstruction and relocation of I-90 was the right way to begin.

Second, Pollack’s decision to support transit and rail pilot projects has been an effective way to experiment with new ideas and respond to advocates and municipalities who seek action on creative approaches to service delivery. The MBTA’s pilot program, while thus far relatively modest in application, has opened up opportunities for stakeholders to work collaboratively with state officials. The highly successful early morning bus service, one part of the “NightBus” pilot sponsored by TransitMatters and the city of Boston (with support from several neighboring municipalities), provided better access to jobs for workers with early morning shifts, and quickly moved from a pilot to a permanent service change. More work needs to be done to craft a successful overnight service, but the will seems to be there to explore and test new approaches to service delivery.

Third, the secretary has developed a process of engagement and analysis that is likely to lead to a historic transition away from today’s commuter rail service to a modern regional rail system that operates under electric power and with frequent, all-day service. She has appointed a Regional Rail Advisory Committee and given it strong internal management and external consultancy support. Regional rail will be an essential component of a strategy to reduce traffic congestion and link Gateway Cities to inner core communities, providing the kind of access to jobs, healthcare, education, and housing that a growing regional economy desperately needs.

Pollack has had the benefit of the Fiscal Management and Control Board to support her efforts to rebuild and modernize the MBTA. I was originally skeptical of the creation of the control board, thinking that it would become another layer of bureaucracy that would get in the way of change. But thanks in large part to the quality of the appointments made by the governor, the control board has become one of the most effective appointed governing boards I have seen in my lifetime.

Advocates have seen the control board meet weekly, in a transparent manner that includes live streaming of all meetings. This process of engagement has been truly engaging – T riders and advocates do not see the control board as removed from the daily realities of transit and rail service. The board has taken a system that had failed to perform during the winter of 2015 and given it a fighting chance to transform itself into a modern, reliable system.

I have not always agreed with decisions the control board makes. This year’s fare increase, for example, is largely the product of a manufactured operating deficit. It should have been deferred.  But the board has been refreshingly candid about the need for net new revenue to accelerate repair and modernization work. And members have also been candid about their concerns that the T needs to rapidly up its game with respect to the delivery of better bus transit services and commit to transit connectivity by connecting the Red and Blue Lines. Board members have expressed and acted on their sincere commitment to prudent fiscal management while also making it clear that social equity must be taken into account when the T makes service delivery decisions.

Meet the Author

The control board goes out of business in a little more than a year, a statutory sunset that poses a great challenge. What is the right approach to future governance of the MBTA? Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, has filed a thoughtful piece of legislation that begins the process of answering that question. For my part, I’m hoping that the final outcome will include a meaningful role for municipalities within metropolitan Boston. Participation on the MBTA Advisory Board no longer remains a sufficient way to tap into municipal expertise, something that takes on more importance as the implementation of a “Better Bus” system requires substantial municipal support and participation.

If you read my articles in CommonWealth or follow me on twitter, you know that I am regularly outspoken on the sustainable mobility issues I care passionately about. There is a lot of work to do. But I offer this as a reminder that my (hopefully constructive) criticism doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the often thankless jobs performed by public officials in the challenging transportation sector. I’ve been there myself, and believe me I would have liked, every now and then, for someone to take a step back and say “thank you” even if they did not always agree with me. So today I take a brief pause to give credit where it is due, and acknowledge a transportation secretary and an MBTA board whose work will, I think, leave a strong platform to support a sustainable mobility future.

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