Baker creates MBTA commission

Wants 'deep dive' done in 30 days

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER moved to put his administration’s stamp on the MBTA by appointing a special commission to investigate how past finance, maintenance, and management practices led to the wintertime collapse of the country’s fifth-largest transit agency. Baker said he expects a report from the advisory group in about 30 days.

The decision to investigate the latest MBTA crisis— and come up with a politically feasible course of action— comes after weeks of unprecedented delays and breakdowns that crippled a system that is more than a century old, left commuters stranded, and forced out MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott.

“Let me make this clear, we cannot expect to do the same thing and expect a different result,” Baker told reporters at a State House press conference that was televised live by several stations. “Providing reliable public transportation should and will require careful review, adequate resources, and a serious discussion about structure and potential restructure.”

The special panel will undertake a “rapid  diagnostic” of the MBTA’s asset management and maintenance program and look at overhauling the authority’s governance, finances, and operations to transform the agency from a functional to reliable 21st century mass transit network.

The group will focus on the “root causes of what occurred,” not the winter operations issues, according to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. “The problems that have beset the MBTA and made it unable to provide reliable public transportation services for the last few weeks are of course a serious problem,” she said. “But we also see them as symptoms of an even more serious problem,”

Pollack indicated that the MBTA would seek advice from its transit peers (such as SEPTA, which serves metro Philadelphia, and New Jersey Transit) on winter operations procedures.

Although the special panel is the latest advisory group to grapple with the MBTA’s problems, it is not the first.   “A virtual mountain of studies, papers, and data has been written about the MBTA’s finances,” said the researchers who worked on the 2009 independent review led by David D’Alessandro, the former head of John Hancock.

In 2007, the Transportation Finance Commission’s investigations led to the establishment of the Massachusetts Transportation Department, an independent  board of directors to govern both the department and MBTA, and new revenue streams for the transit agency. The 2009 review echoed many of the conclusions of the commission.

Baker defended the creation of a new advisory group, noting that those two reports led to reforms. “I think the Speaker [Robert DeLeo] and the Senate President [Stan Rosenberg] would both say that those reform proposals were done in response to previous reports that were done on the T,” he said.

The governor declined to say whether he would seek new revenues or consider putting the authority into receivership, an idea that has been tossed in the mix of possible MBTA fixes by the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank.

Josh Ostroff, outreach director for the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said that drastic steps such as receivership  were premature. “It is important not to have a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “Just because an organization says that we need to go into receivership and bust the unions, that not’s really in the public interest.”

Pioneer has also called for the state to take on a portion of the authority’s more than $5 billion in so-called Big Dig debt. Pioneer suggested that a move to assume 25 percent of the debt associated with Big Dig mitigation projects would free up $50 million for the agency to direct toward operations.

The Pioneer Institute proposal is not the first time a suggestion has been made to assume a portion of the MBTA’s debt. But previous discussions about assuming debt have not gained traction in the Legislature, which must approve such a move. The authority’s total debt is nearly $9 billion.

As for the Legislature, Ostroff said that he hopes that state lawmakers consider the T’s problems with “an open mind.”

D’Alessandro has told The Boston Globe that no state lawmakers ever called him about the 2009 review.

The members of the special panel are Jane Garvey, a former head of the Federal Aviation Administration; Robert P. Gittens, Northeastern University’s vice president of public affairs; José Gómez-Ibáñez, a Harvard University professor of urban planning and public policy; Katherine Lapp, a former executive director of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Brian McMorrow, the chief financial officer  of Massport’s  aviation division, and Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan, who served on the 2007 Transportation Finance Commission.

Paul Barrett, a former director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, will chair the panel.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

The group’s report is expected by the end of March.

 

  • agingcynic

    As President of the MA Mayors Assoc. and having been the first and only Mayor Braintree has ever had since 2007, Joe Sullivan is probably surprised to be the “former mayor”.