Taylor: New T board different by design

The new MBTA board is turning out to be very different from its predecessor, and chair Betsy Taylor says that’s by design. 

Some of the differences were mandated by the Legislature. The old board, called the Fiscal and Management Control Board, had five members; the new board has seven. The old board typically met twice a month and its meetings often ran long; the new board meets once a month and its meetings follow a very tight schedule. 

The big difference isn’t anything mentioned in the legislation creating the board. The old board was a reflection of its name — hands-on, in some cases driving policy at the MBTA. The new board is more reactive, letting T staff set the agenda. 

“That’s quite intentional,” said Taylor on The Codcast. “The secretary of transportation and the GM [of the MBTA] worked with the governor and the Legislature to create this new board. They wanted it to be more like the [Department of Transportation] board. They did not want it to be a control board.”

 Taylor said the control board was created during the emergency snow crisis of 2015, when the T closed for several days, and needed to take control. “That’s what it was and that’s probably what the T needed at the time,” she said. “The hope is now that the T management and the staff can take a stronger role and the board can function more like the DOT board and less like the control board.” 

That may sound like a minor tweak, but it’s actually a fundamental shift. Many transportation advocates came to rely on the control board to leverage action at the MBTA, but that may be far less likely now. The MassDOT board, which Taylor has served on the last six years as a finance expert, has a history of ratifying or raising mild concerns about transportation policies, not initiating them.

A good example of the shift at the T is the debate on means-tested fares — fares adjusted based on the income level of the rider. Before its mandate expired in June, the control board held a number of discussions on means-tested fares and passed a resolution directing staff to develop a pilot project to test the concept and present that pilot to the new board in October for action. No pilot has been presented to the board, and advocates at last week’s meeting pressed for an explanation but didn’t get one.

“Whatever work the staff has done will bubble up with [MBTA General Manager] Steve Poftak,” Taylor said. “As I said, we will be discussing the issues of fares in January and we will have public discussion and people will hear what that discussion is.”

Asked whether the discussion in January will be about means-tested fares or the broader issue of fares, Taylor said she thought it would be the broader issue. But she said there is no current plan to raise fares.

“The current five-year [budget] projections assume there will be no fare increase for five years, so I don’t think there is specific talk [about raising fares],” Taylor said. “I will say, having read and studied those five-year projections, there is a very clear need for some form of additional revenue. There are all sorts of possibilities. I have some ideas. I’m sure my fellow board members have some ideas, but there is no doubt that there is a need for additional revenue.”

The old T board had begun to pressure the Baker administration and the Legislature for more funding, but Taylor said that will not be her first inclination. “First of all, it is the T’s responsibility to find as much own revenue as we can,” she said, referring to revenue the T generates on its own. “It doesn’t just mean fare revenues. I’m thinking of lots of other ways we could get fare revenue. We need to think as broadly and creatively as we can. At some point we will need additional state support, but I think we should demonstrate that we have done what we can as opposed to just throwing up our hands and saying somebody needs to save us. That is my individual inclination.” 

Taylor indicated eliminating fares in this environment is not a priority she shares with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, although Taylor said she wants to review studies of how fare-free bus routes have worked. “Right now I think free fares for certain routes help people in places. Means tested fares help people, or should be designed to help people, who need help. So is one going to subsidize places or subsidize people?” Taylor asked. “If I were picking, and I’m only one vote of seven, I’d pick subsidizing people over subsidizing places.”

Taylor said the agenda of the MBTA board is set by her and Poftak. “Right now the GM and I have a conversation before the agenda is finalized,” Taylor said. “The T has certain business it needs to do. It knows when certain contracts need to be approved. The board will take guidance from the staff on that. I can also tell you that we have asked for a list of briefings on some of the large key projects that the T is working on and I expect in January and February to have a schedule of those going out. As we go through those briefings, the board is likely to ask for updates either on the general progress of those issues or on other concerns that arise from the discussions. We’re still a really new board. Just as you have watched us work virtually, we have only worked together virtually. Some of this stuff is going to take time.”

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Bruce Mohl

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About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

In her role on the MassDOT board, Taylor serves on a committee seeking to find financing for the massive I-90 Allston project. She sounds a bit skeptical of the all-at-grade approach favored by transportation advocates and, more recently, the Baker administration, but her biggest concern is financing the proje 

“I hope the activists who have pushed so effectively and thoughtfully for one solution now put equal vigor into helping with the environmental reviews and also thinking about who should pay for this,” Taylor said. “That project will have tremendous transportation improvements. It will also create a whole new section of the city. The private developers are only going to build that if they are going to make money out of it. And it’s not going to be on the T’s land. And it’s going to be largely in one city. If people are going to make a lot of money out of building that, maybe, maybe they should contribute to the infrastructure that makes that land so valuable for them.”