T control board’s stance on revenues evolving

Seven months ago the MBTA’s oversight board indicated it was going to weigh in on whether the Legislature should explore new transportation funding initiatives, but since then there’s been nothing.

Joe Aiello, the chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the timing was not right back then. But soon it will be, he says, pointing out that there have been some new developments on the revenue front. Aiello also says the board is likely to lay out options for the Legislature rather than recommend anything specific, perhaps because of Gov. Charlie Baker’s continued opposition to new revenues.

The focus in March was on capital spending, but a series of initiatives (Red and Orange Line overhauls, South Coast Rail, and Green Line extension) all come on line in the next five years and new expenses (pension liabilities and family and medical leave costs) are putting upward pressure on the T’s operating budget.

The other big unknown is the cost of a commuter rail makeover. The T is reviewing a series of options for commuter rail, and there is growing support on the board for an all-day, electrified, subway-like system. Aiello says the board is likely to make a decision about the future of commuter rail in November, and the long-term cost could be substantial.

“But we don’t have two cents to rub together to get that done,” Aiello said. “If, in fact, that is also something that Beacon Hill views as something important to continue to support the economy and the environment here, that’s an increment that is significant enough that we need to get that data out in public as quickly as possible. “

Aiello characterizes the board’s role as fact-finding rather than recommending a specific course of action.  “Our view at the board is to weigh out choices for the public to see and lay out choices for the Legislature,” he said. Additional suggestions might include running the Blue Line autonomously or expanding the bus network, he said.

That wasn’t the view of fellow board member Brian Lang in March.  At the time, the T was preparing to hike fares, and Lang said the T shouldn’t be increasing the cost of riding the transit system in isolation from other modes of transportation. He called on the Legislature to “grow a little courage” and assess higher fees on ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, boost the gas tax, and increase tolls at peak travel periods.

Those types of recommendations will not be included in what the control board lays out, Aiello said. “It’s certainly not our role to tell anyone that tolls ought to be raised or more tolls ought to be implemented on a mode we don’t control. That’s not how we view our role,” he said.

In a wide ranging interview on the Codcast from CommonWealth magazine, Aiello also:

Apologized for bus comments – Last month, Aiello called a presentation by T staff on bus improvements a “timid effort,” but now he says that was a mistake. “Reflecting on that meeting, I was probably a bit too harsh; not probably, I was too harsh on the staff,” he said.

Aiello said the T bus plan was too cautious. “What I was hearing was a reflection of the fact that we don’t have the culture change completed yet at the T,” he said. “The culture at the T has been just to accept to do the best you possibly can with the resources made available to you without a real sense of where the organization ought to be heading and without a strong internal advocacy to fight for the kinds of changes and resources needed to put the T properly on that pathway. “

Aiello said bus improvements are very hard because the T doesn’t control the roadway infrastructure.

“When you look at bus very little is under our control. We own the buses. We drive the buses. But we don’t own the streets, the sidewalks, even most of the bus stops are not owned by the T directly,” Aiello said. “I want to change the notion that this is hard and, therefore, we need to really take our time.”

Praised General Manager Steve Poftak – “He’s got every ingredient you need to be a terrific leader,” Aiello said, noting Poftak has strong interpersonal skills, is committed to culture change at the T, and has a deep knowledge of the authority. Aiello said riders won’t recognize the T in five years. “It took a while to get there, but we’re delighted that he’s the GM,” Aiello said. Poftak in December replaced Luis Ramirez, who was hired by Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and ousted after just 15 months on the job.

Sings Baker’s praises — “Everybody loves the way Gov. Baker has accepted responsibility and shown real leadership,” Aiello said. “I can’t say enough about the governor for saying ‘I got this.’ For something that is a pretty dangerous thing to say I own it, he’s been wonderful.”

Talks up new board – The Fiscal and Management Control Board is due to expire at the end of next June. Aiello said there are a lot of conversations going on about what kind of board is needed in the future. The current board is on record favoring a small board that would be coterminous with the governor and include the secretary of transportation. Aiello said the board would also like to see the number of meetings scaled back from three a month to one every two weeks to give senior staff more time to do their work. “A meeting every other week is a better pace at this point, probably every other week is sufficient.”

Aiello said there may be a need for some continuity between this board and the next. “If the governor deems that he wants one or two people to stay on the board and serve out the rest of this current term, I’m sure any of the members he would ask would agree to do that. You may see that happening,” he said.



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