Is it time to shake up the MBTA board?
Budget provision, new governor could have big impact
A correction has been added to this story.
IN THE DEBATE over the future of the MBTA, very little attention has been paid to the relatively new board that oversees the transit authority.
The board began its work last fall and adopted a very different style from its predecessor, the Fiscal and Management Control Board.
The previous board was criticized by a safety panel it hired in 2019 for meeting too frequently and for too long and for taking up too much of the staff’s time, even though state law required the board to meet three times a month. When the new board was created, the law required the board to meet at least once a month and the panel on its own adopted a more hands-off approach, letting MBTA management set the agenda. (This paragraph was corrected to make clear that the number of meetings per month was set by state law.)
Yet with the MBTA facing a federal safety review and lawmakers on Beacon Hill asking whether the transit authority should be abolished and rolled into the Department of Transportation, some transportation advocates are beginning to question whether the new board is too passive.
“They are not probing or using as much of their oversight authority as they could,” said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the municipalities in the transit authority’s service area.
Both the former control board and the new T board are made up almost entirely of appointees of Gov. Charlie Baker. That, too, was by design, to give the governor direct control of the MBTA.
The old board, particularly toward the end of its nearly six-year tenure, occasionally took different positions than the governor (backing a low-income fare, for example), but the new board, still getting its bearings, rarely goes off script.
That could change. In its recently approved budget plan, the Legislature inserted a provision expanding the size of the seven-person MBTA board by adding two new members, one appointed by the mayor of Boston and the other a municipal official in the MBTA service area appointed by the governor.Those appointments could shake things up a bit, but change is also coming because a new governor will take over in January. When Baker leaves office,, the terms of four members of the current board — Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler, Robert Butler, Mary Beth Mello, and Thomas (Scott) Darling – will also come to an end. If the new governor replaces all of them, a majority of the board members will be new on the job at a time when the T is grappling with pressing safety and budget challenges.
“What that means is we’re going to have another time of folks learning the ropes,” Kane said.