Lawmakers skeptical of MBTA control board plan

Question need for a new ‘piece of bureaucracy’

Can the Baker administration address the MBTA’s problems using the tools that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation already has?

That was the question that the Joint Committee on Transportation wrestled with as Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and members of Gov. Charlie Baker’s special MBTA panel fielded questions about its recent report on T operations, management, and finances at a legislative oversight hearing at the State House Tuesday.

With an audience of more than 200 people largely dominated by MBTA employees crowded behind her, Pollack made a forceful pitch for a stand-alone fiscal and management control board that would be dedicated exclusively to the T’s problems. “Both MassDOT and the MBTA will benefit from the temporary separation at the governance-level only, not management, not staff ,” Pollack said.

But the Transportation Committee’s two co-chairs, Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn and Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, are not convinced. Both men voiced considerable skepticism about the administration’s insistence on a new “piece of bureaucracy,” as McGee termed the control board plan, especially since Baker has six open seats on the MassDOT board after the mass resignation of the Patrick appointees last week.

“We want to make sure that the T works within the framework of the Department of Transportation,” said McGee. “Are we addressing a management problem with a governance solution?”

Straus suggested that there were steps to reform the MBTA that the Baker administration could make without legislation. “There are a number of administrative changes that the administration can implement today or would require modest fixes in the authority and the chain of command without trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

One change that Pollack indicated that she plans to make that does not require legislation is creating a central MBTA procurement and contract management office that would oversee the agency’s project spending and coordinate the purchasing of equipment and other materials, tasks that are currently spread across the agency.

Straus also said that tweaking current transportation statutes might be another option that lawmakers could pursue. “I didn’t hear anything today that tells me from a legal requirement or policy reason why some of these changes that we both support couldn’t be implemented by modifying the MassDOT board authorization,” he said.

During a break in the hearing, James O’Brien, president and business agent of the Boston Carmen’s Union, the MBTA’s largest organized labor union, echoed some of the sentiments of the committee co-chairs. “I personally don’t know if [the governor] needs a control panel if he is going to appoint all the members of the MassDOT board.”

According to Pollack, the current MassDOT board structure is not up to the job of steering the changes that the MBTA needs to make to avoid the kinds of problems that have long-plagued the agency and crippled operations this past winter.

Despite two rounds of legislative reform efforts, the secretary noted that there are measures, such as the strict separation between capital and operating budgets, that MassDOT has been able to implement while the MBTA has not. Unlike the highway department, the MBTA continues to pay employees out of its capital budget.

Pollack emphasized that the “depth” of the T’s problems require the focus of a dedicated board rather than having members of a MassDOT board try to work on the T along with overseeing the state registry of motor vehicles and the aeronautics and highway departments.

The new structure would allow the governor to appoint a chief administrative officer to run the MBTA. Together with Baker and Pollack, the administrator would look into new revenue options such as selling real estate, advertising, and other concession opportunities.

A new board would also be able to devote more time to T-specific issues. Currently, the MassDOT board meets one day a month. The Springfield Finance Control Board, which served as a model for the Baker administration’s MBTA plan, started out meeting 15 to 20 hours per week, Pollack said.

“The control board, in our view, is needed, not only to introduce a kind of financial stability and management discipline at the T but also to powerfully communicate that change is needed and that change is coming,” said Jane Garvey, a panel member and a former head of the Federal Aviation Commission.

Another potential obstacle is recruiting people to serve on both boards. Straus indicated that he thought that pulling together a possible control board and a new MassDOT board would be difficult. “Sixteen new people who can pass ethics and conflict of interest standards in the transportation field is not an easy thing to accomplish,” he said.

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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.

Pollack, currently the sole MassDOT board member, said that the governor hopes to fill the six MassDOT vacancies before its mid-May meeting. A bill recently filed by the governor would expand the Mass DOT board’s membership to 11.

The transportation committee co-chairs said that they expect to hold hearings on the governor’s control board proposal in the coming days.