A new MBTA board of directors is needed urgently

Healey could make three new appointments immediately

THE HEADLINE spoke volumes.

As the MBTA’s interim general manager laid out a comprehensive presentation on the history and current status of the troubled procurement of new Red and Orange Line cars, the MBTA’s board sat silent and “asked no questions.”

It was a jaw dropping, but unsurprising headline, describing the behavior of a board that from its inception has largely appeared to be out of touch with the T rider experience and downright disinterested in the details of how the agency functions.

I gave this board ample time to get its sea legs, and I acknowledged several times that the current board members were specifically chosen to be a post-Fiscal and Management Control Board. This was supposed to be the board that ushered back a return to normalcy.  Instead, faced with an increasing number of system failures, it has utterly failed to rise to the occasion.

What’s at stake?  Nothing less than rider confidence in the system. I understand the frustrations that come when a board micro-manages staff.  But there is a clear distinction between micro-management and diligence. The Fiscal and Management Control Board, or FMCB, was active and  did get into the weeds, and rightly so because its members were highly experienced and knowledgeable. They responded to rider concerns, they improved accountability and transparency, and they left a strong record of performance.

The FMCB also provided a list of initiatives that it urged its successor board to complete and implement. Instead, the current board has failed to advance Regional Rail Phase 1, dragged its feet on fare reform, and generally took a hands-off approach to governance. To her credit, the board chair, Betsy Taylor, has been open and candid about the looming operating budget crisis, but her colleagues have been a huge disappointment, failing to engage staff in critical meetings regarding safety and procurement matters.

The MBTA today is facing a dual crisis: one of employee morale and rider confidence. This is not the fault of T officials and employees, many who I know personally and who are very dedicated, capable people. They have been dealt a difficult hand, and in the prior administration have had to navigate through a perfect storm of safety incidents, pandemic effects, hasty subway shutdowns, anemic operating budgets and gubernatorial micromanagement.

I’m not suggesting that the board, on its own, could have altered this storm, but it might have made a difference in tangible ways.  It might have insisted on more transparency and accountability for a hastily-conceived, expensive, and disruptive 30-day Orange Line shutdown that appears to not have delivered on what was promised by the prior general manager. It might actually ask informed questions at board meetings, giving riders some confidence that the agency’s governance body was engaged and active in problem solving and policy making. Instead the members sit, presumably listen, and ask no questions.

I have called for a change in the MBTA’s governance structure, one where there would be more municipal participation on the board. Given the many new ways cities and towns are being asked to support the T, whether through dedicating lanes for buses, installing traffic signal priority, or building more commuter rail parking, having more municipal voices on the board would be a net benefit. The disruption of the Orange Line shutdown was significantly mitigated because of the exceptional efforts of municipal officials. They stepped up in a big way, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s leadership in that effort was essential to the overall success of the substitute bus and bike services.

Gov. Maura Healey can advance this effort by filing legislation that would keep the current 7-person Board but have three of the positions filled as municipal seats, one a permanent Boston seat (reflecting the capital city’s outsized role in the system), and two appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board. Ideally one of those two Advisory Board seats would be from a “commuter rail” city or town.

In the meantime, Healey has three MBTA board appointments she can make immediately, because three members have terms coterminous with the governor. One of her picks could be someone selected from a short list provided by Wu, as a way to increase municipal participation before the Legislature changes the statute. Nothing prevents the governor from doing this, and it would be an important way to demonstrate her commitment to bring transformative change to the way the agency is governed by empowering municipal voices.

A 2014 report written jointly by the Eno Foundation and Transit Center demonstrated that governance matters, and matters more than most people think, when it comes to how successful transit agencies are at setting and achieving basic goals.  Metro Boston is relying on this new administration to transform the MBTA into a transit and rail agency that delivers on first world service delivery, delivers on the promise of Regional Rail, delivers on improving access and connectivity (Red/Blue Connector and West Station), and delivers on a safe, convenient, and reliable rider experience. Metro Boston’s economy needs a high functioning public transportation system to support its economy equitably. This is important stuff, and it deserves an experienced board that is engaged, active and committed to playing a constructive role in making this transformation happen.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a member of the TransitMatters Board.