Baker names MBTA control board
Group ready to begin work
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER dipped into the Bay State’s deep bench of transportation and finance experts as he named members of a new MBTA fiscal and management control board. State lawmakers agreed to Baker’s call for a control board to take the reins at the T after the agency’s disastrous response to the blizzards of 2015. Baker swore in the five-member board during a State House ceremony Friday.
Joseph Aiello, a partner and director of business development for North America for Meridiam, will chair control board. Meridiam invests in and manages large infrastructure projects. The East Boston native is no stranger to the MBTA, having worked in as an assistant general manager in two agency department during the 1980s.
Former transportation secretary Jim Aloisi called the Aiello pick an “incredibly deft appointment.” “He is one of the best minds in terms of public-private partnerships in the country,” Aloisi said.
Aiello was instrumental steering the construction of the Port Miami Tunnel Project, an initiative that Aloisi says many Floridians thought would never happen. ”Joe was the father of that,” he said. Most important, he said, Aiello understands the Bay State system and empathizes with MBTA riders. “He has a very clear sense and understands what it is like to be a working person who is just trying to get to a job or to medical care,” Aloisi said.
Two of those named to the control board also serve on the MassDOT board of directors: Steve Poftak, the executive director of Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Brian Lang, president of the hotel and food service labor union Unite Here Local 26.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said that Tibbits-Nutt in particular brings a perspective that most public transportation agencies don’t often hear — that of a membership-driven, non-profit agency that provides transportation services. “She runs one of the biggest and most successful transportation management associations in the Commonwealth and a very successful shuttle service in probably the most difficult area to run a shuttle service,” he said.
Late-night MBTA bus service featuring smaller shuttle buses is one area that might be well-suited to privatization, according to Regan. The current service relies on employee overtime and does not move large numbers of people. “It is a perfect place to start with a new model,” he said. “It’s a niche market that might be better served through privatization.”
Moving into new areas like a late-night shuttle services has stoked fears that union jobs are on the chopping block. The 2016 state budget includes a provision that suspends for three years the Pacheco law, which will make it easier to privatize MBTA services.
Baker dismissed those concerns. “I made very clear from the very beginning of this conversation that this is not about privatizing the MBTA,” he said. “It is about coming up with a smarter, better way of providing services and supporting the operations and delivering a higher-quality, dependable, affordable product to the ridership and to the taxpayers of Massachusetts.”
Regan did not see the suspension of the Pacheco law as an anti-union measure. He said it was one way to get what he called “extraneous stuff” off of the MBTA’s agenda and let the workforce concentrate on current operations.
According to Regan, the most important thing the control board could do would be to get MBTA employees to think differently about how they do their jobs. MBTA managers and employees don’t have “the time or the opportunity to step back and take a different perspective on what they do every day,” Regan said. “They do today what succeeded yesterday.”
Unlike the MassDOT board of directors, the control board is “the first real reform-focused” group,” said former state senator Steven Baddour, who co-chaired the Legislature’s transportation committee and worked on legislation that established the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in 2009. “Its only mission is to come to grips with the MBTA crisis,” he said of the new board.
The first meeting of the control board is Tuesday, July 21. Regan said a good place for the group to start would be thinking differently about budget choices. “The MBTA needs to focus less on doing things the way they’ve always done them and try to get more value for the dollar that they spend,” said Regan.
Questions remain about whether a part-time, unpaid group of volunteers with full-time jobs can effectively tackle financial problems that have persisted for decades, or management issues like absenteeism that are endemic to the transit industry.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said that the part-time nature of the positions would not affect their work. “We think that we have identified a group of folks that, even though they are volunteers, have the expertise and the willingness to roll up their sleeves to put in the time that is going to be needed to make the control board work,” she said. Pollack added that MassDOT could hire additional staff and consultants to assist the control board.
The control board is “the last stand for the MBTA,” said Baddour. “If they are unable to do it, I’m not sure who can, especially with the governor being the fix-it governor that he is.”Meanwhile, the MBTA has invested $85 million in system-wide winter resiliency upgrades based on conversations the system had with US and Canadian transit agencies that experience similar winter weather. To get ready for winter, Pollack said that agency is making sure that training, procedures, and contracts have been updated and that the necessary equipment is on order.
Pollack said that the control board members will scrutinize the new winter plans. “We are putting all the pieces in place that we believe are necessary to ensure that the commute is much better next winter than it was last year,” she said.