T control board’s one-year assessment

On the eve of their one-year anniversary, the five members of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board report that the “long-term rebuilding of the MBTA is underway.” That’s not a very sexy headline, but it’s accurate.

The control board, one of the most fascinating state government experiments in a long time, came into being in the wake of the winter of 2015, which brought the T to its knees and highlighted just how dysfunctional the transit agency was. Yet the board, in an op-ed in the Boston Globe, said it quickly discovered “the T’s challenges were even deeper and more disturbing than we had anticipated.” They described the agency as “fiscally and operationally broken.”

Over the last year, the five unpaid board members have met almost every week to push and prod change at the agency. Their biggest success has been making an incredibly insular organization recognize its problems and begin to address them.

The board goes about its job by asking staff to report on problems at the agency and then asking questions to illuminate the best next course of action. The board members — Joseph Aiello, a partner at Meridiam Infrastructure; Lisa Calise, the chief financial officer at the Perkins School for the Blind; Brian Lang, president of Local 26, Boston’s hotel and food service union; Steve Poftak, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School; and Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council — are all very different.

Aiello, the chairman of the control board, is the most knowledgeable about transportation issues because of his background, which includes a stint working at the T itself. Calise is the most hard-nosed of the group, particularly on financial matters. Lang pays close attention to union issues, but hasn’t become an obstacle to privatization efforts. Poftak, who previously worked at the Pioneer Institute, is a guy who seems driven by data. And Tibbits-Nutt becomes most animated when talking technology.

The five board members seem to respect each other and work cooperatively. Right now, they seem focused on putting out fires, which spring up with amazing frequency. They haven’t had many philosophical debates in public about the direction of the agency, but that may come as they begin to develop long-term strategy and governance for the agency.

Their biggest problem seems to be the thin bench of senior management talent at the agency. It’s evident in the T’s inability to spend all the capital funds at its disposal. It’s evident in the agency’s reliance on consultants to spearhead larger projects such as the Green Line Extension. And it’s evident in the weekly presentations to the board, which tend to be handled by a very small group of executives.

The politics of transportation is also a minefield for the control board. As the five board members struggle to put the T on sound operational and financial footing, they are continuously buffeted by citizens, groups, and pols who want the T to do more and more when the agency is barely able to run and maintain what it has now.

South Coast Rail, a priority of the Baker administration and South Coast lawmakers, may be the most obvious example. The project’s budget recently jumped from $2.23 billion to $3.4 billion, all for a line that would carry an estimated 4,750 riders a day. Rather than pull the plug on the project to Fall River and New Bedford, the board members kicked the can down the road by deciding to pursue an alternative route that possibly could be done for far less money.

The control board identified most of the T’s problems in its first year of operation. Now it’s time to fix them. As the board members say in their op-ed, “our greatest challenges lie ahead.”



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