Healey brings in a transit professional to run the T

Eng says it’s time for a new way of doing business

NEARLY FOUR MONTHS into her term, Gov. Maura Healey made what she described as the most important appointment of her time in office, naming Phillip Eng as the new general manager of the MBTA.

Eng is a genial, straight-talking, optimistic 61-year-old engineer who has spent 40 years working in various capacities in New York transit and transportation agencies and has a track record of success in turning around large, poorly performing operations.

At a press conference outside the Riverside Green Line station in Newton, where Eng traveled on the subway, he exhibited a sense of humor and a quiet confidence.  He promised improvement, but said he’s not leading in the cavalry to transform the T.

“It’s just me,” he said.

“It’s clear that the MBTA service is not at the level that it needs to be, and it hasn’t been that way for far too long. It’s time for a new way of doing business at the T,” Eng said.

That new way of doing business appears to center on identifying problems, coming up with solutions, and addressing them through teamwork. “I want to empower the staff. I want them to embrace innovative solutions,” he said.

“With a strong team, a sense of urgency, and an unwavering commitment to customer service, I know we can and will overcome this. It’s not going to happen overnight, but my pledge to the people of Massachusetts is that you will see meaningful, measurable steps being taken and progress being made in short order,” he said.

He dismissed a reporter’s question about how badly he would rank the T in terms of its performance. “It’s the best transit system in the world, and that’s why I’m here,” he said.

New MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng, backed by Gov. Maura Healey, Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca. and interim General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville, speaks to the press at Riverside Station. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

He said he was confident the governor would find the resources for him to improve the MBTA, but he said he would never blame lack of state investment for the transit authority’s problems. “I’m going to work with whatever we’re given,” he said.

Healey, who has taken a largely hands-off attitude toward the T until now, said Eng’s hiring is an important start in tackling the ongoing problems at the T, which she said “have been a long time in the making.”

“I have total confidence in him and what he brings to this,” Healey said of Eng. “He certainly understands the challenges facing the system. I think what you hear from him is a spirit of optimism. And that’s what we need to see. We’re never going to get to where we need to be unless we bring that spirit, that aspiration of optimism, and of teamwork. And that’s what Phil Eng represents.”

She added: “This is a really good day for the Commonwealth. We’re turning the page and moving forward in what I think is a really strong direction. I realize I will be measured every day on how things are going.”

The last two general managers at the MBTA both came from outside the industry. Luis Manuel Ramirez had no public sector or transit experience; he was gone after 15 months. Steve Poftak, his replacement, also had no transit experience but was elevated from the Fiscal and Management Control Board to the top job at the T.

Jeffrey Gonneville, a 22-year veteran of the MBTA, has been serving as the interim general manager since early January. He has brought much greater transparency to the agency and some transit advocates had urged Healey to keep Gonneville in place while she works on resolving some of the agency’s financial issues.

Gonneville, who joined Eng at the Riverside Station press conference, said he’s staying on board, although he didn’t say for how long. He said he’s excited to work with Eng.

“He is a transit professional. He is someone I’m really going to enjoy working with,” he said. “I’m happy to be part of the team.”

MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng (center) chats with James Rooney (back to camera), the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, chat at Eng’s first press conference. Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll is behind them. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

A large group of people, including lawmakers, T employees, the secretary of transportation, and the lieutenant governor, attended the press conference. Jim Rooney, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a former MBTA general manager himself, came to listen to Eng and introduce himself.

Eng was also joined by his wife and daughter, who is a student at Northeastern University and has a job lined up after graduation in Foxborough working in biomedical engineering

He also flashed a little humor. “I’d like to start by addressing the big elephant in the room,” he said at the beginning of the press conference. “No, I’m not a Yankees fan.”

Asked at the end of the press conference if that meant he was a Red Sox fan, he acknowledged he was a Mets fan. Healey muttered about 1986 and the Red Sox loss to the Mets in the World Series, and said she is going to work to convert Eng.