Baker’s surprise transportation pick

Governor taps well-known transit advocate for transportation secretary

STEPHANIE POLLACK MAY know more about the MBTA than anyone alive. She’s been a dogged advocate for transit expansion. She opposed the repeal of gas tax indexing, believing the state needs a steady stream of new revenue to meet infrastructure needs. And she has lots of solid ideas for dealing with the state’s transportation problems. The catch is most of them cost money.

How does a transportation advocate with stellar policy bona fides but limited public sector experience work with a Republican governor who has sworn off new taxes and fees?

Were about to find out. Pollack, one of the Bay State’s foremost transportation experts, was tapped by Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday to become the first woman to lead the state Department of Transportation.

Stephanie is one of the top transportation minds in Massachusetts,” said former transportation secretary Richard Davey who headed up MassDOT from 2011 to 2014.

Michael Wider, the outgoing president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, recently told CommonWealth that ideally Baker needed a transportation visionary to helm one of the state’s most complex sectors.

In selecting Pollack, Baker is going with the vision thing. Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, has been a fervent advocate of the need to invest in state transportation assets, while being well-versed in the sector’s deep financial problems. “Massachusetts has run up all its credit cards in the transportation area,” Pollack told CommonWealth in 2008.

Although she lacks direct public sector experience, Pollack has credibility on Beacon Hill as one of the go-to experts for lawmakers on transportation policy issues, particularly in the most recent debates over new revenues.

She also should work well within MassDOT. “Stephanie is the type of person who can bring a calming influence on the management side and let the day-to-day operations staff do their jobs,” said Davey.

Pollack has spent ten years at the Dukakis Center, where she advised Patrick administration officials and worked on several important studies of state and federal transportation policy.

She was helpful to us in the implementation of both transportation reform and MassDOT’s [environmental responsibility and sustainability initiative],” said Jeffrey Mullan, who headed MassDOT from 2009 to 2011. “Her passion for the field and her fundamental understanding of how it is that we arrived at the point we are now at will serve her well in her new role.

Pollack has one of the most challenging missions of any member of the Baker cabinet. Former governor Deval Patrick went through five transportation secretaries. State residents, who are perhaps more intimately acquainted with transportation than any other state government department, are vocal about its shortcomings.

Pollack comes into a sector that has been leeching revenues after the repeals of gas tax indexing and the tech tax.

She also has to handle the problems of the MBTA, which will be under new pressures to improve performance and spruce up trains, buses, and stations as the 2024 Summer Olympics selection looms.

“[MBTA] is definitely more about putting out fires than expanding service. It’s really getting hard to use the system,” Pollack told CommonWealth in 2013.

But she has some cards to play. Both the Red and Orange lines will have new rail cars in the next several years. She can look forward to steering other projects that she once advocated for like the Green Line extension. “You need a steady hand at the top to make sure that the bureaucracy is moving those projects forward,” said Davey.

Reforms, such as the establishment of a project selection advisory council to look at specific transportation proposals recommendation may, according to Davey, take some of politics out of projects and give lawmakers a sense of what projects are feasible in the current fiscal climate.

One thing is certain: Since former governor Patrick and state lawmakers recently tussled over new transportation revenues, there is going to be little appetite to revisit the issue.

“Often people believe that 50 cents should buy you a dollar’s worth of projects in Massachusetts and it’s just not possible,Davey said. “The [latest] reform and revenue [debate], while it didn’t deliver all of the major capital projects people wanted, it has delivered some fiscal stability in the short term to MassDOT and the T. So there really is an opportunity for someone like Stephanie to help think about what the next decade, two decades look like. Frankly, that may be the way to sell a further revenue conversation down the line.”