Baker’s MBTA control board gift to Legislature

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER gave House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg a big gift. The present did not come wrapped in colorful paper with a fancy bow. It’s mundane really: a thin binder tagged “Back on Track: An Action Plan to Transform the MBTA,” full of PowerPoint slides in shades of blue and grey with rare splashes of red and yellow.

While many analysts remain caught up in the white noise of unspent capital dollars and worker absenteeism, Baker’s proposal for a MBTA fiscal and management control board is a historic development.

The Boston Herald explained the move as as “tearing the transit agency right down to the studs.” Most major renovation projects don’t come with a gift card, but Baker has dangled one in front of legislative leaders. A control board is a gift that essentially absolves the Legislature in the short term by taking the pressure off legislative leaders to deal with MBTA revenue questions.

Nevertheless, a fiscal and management control board would spotlight what has shaped up as one of the major failings of the 2009 transportation reforms: the inability of the MassDOT board to chart any coherent long-range policy and planning strategies or rise to the challenge of reforming the MBTA.

The 2009 transportation reforms were a big lift for the Legislature. Massachusetts needed a transportation board dedicated to making tough policy decisions and dealing once and for all with the MBTA, the most problematic and out of control member of the pugnacious MassDOT family.

But former governor Deval Patrick came under fire early on for populating the board (with several notable exceptions) with individuals who had no substantive transportation experience. In 2010, CommonWealth noted that the board did not get off to an auspicious start. “The fact that we got the board that we ended up with that was disappointing to so many unfortunately made it easy to criticize,” said former state senator Steven Baddour, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee who was present at the creation of MassDOT six years ago.

Those reservations proved well-founded as the MassDOT board essentially rubber stamped decision after decision and procurement after procurement without engaging in substantive debate over the merits of such moves.

The proposed control board is a natural outgrowth of the failure to appoint a strong group of transportation professionals to highlight and fix governance problems in the transportation bureaucracy. The this-board-needs-to-go sentiment only got louder with the winter collapse of the MBTA. The special MBTA panel gave this succinct and damning appraisal of their tenure:  “The current governance structure does not foster productive oversight of the troubled MBTA.”

In the short term, the governor’s proposal would return the state transportation sector to its pre-2009 governance status of two boards, one charged with dealing with the MBTA and the other with the rest of the transportation departments.  However, since Baker has asked for the resignation of the MassDOT board, he would essentially get two completely new boards-if the Legislature approves his plan.

Baker’s proposal would install the Secretary of Transportation as chair and align the terms of board members so that most of them serve in tandem with the governor who appoints them. These changes have their own potential for political shenanigans.

Increasing the number of members of the board is a proposal that deserves consideration, especially if the board brings on individuals who represent the city of Boston and other cities and towns served by the MBTA and a labor representative from a transportation union.

Details can be tweaked. What Baker has really done is place responsibility for one of state government’s most persistent problems firmly in the Corner Office. The Bay State will find out soon enough whether legislative leaders are in the mood to accept this gift of political absolution.




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