MBTA turnaround taking longer than we want

Upcoming legislative hearings prompted largely by politics

THE INITIAL TURNAROUND of the MBTA in Gov. Charlie Baker’s first term had been such a good story that it is a whole chapter in his recent book. But pandemic-induced staffing shortages and a string of troubling safety incidents have written an unwelcome plot twist. Political support for the administration’s handling of the MBTA has crumbled, resulting in upcoming legislative hearings that look to be contentious.

Safety is a major issue, but it is politics that has caused the hearings and stinging criticism from the media. After all, the recent safety directives from the federal government are relatively mild compared to the MBTA’s own safety report after the Red Line derailment in 2019. That report was alarming, and not just due to safety issues, but as a portrait of an organization where labor is at odds with management.

There was little outcry after the first report, and there were no legislative hearings. Members of the media had seen on their MBTA tours that a lot was being fixed. Transit advocates had many board meetings to push their agenda. The politics were supported by a narrative most people believed: things really were getting better, and we must be patient.

That was then.

The problem now isn’t that the MBTA hasn’t improved a great deal. It’s actually in fantastic shape compared to several years ago. I am a 25-year user of the MBTA system, and my family relies on it daily. I even wrote parts of this piece while on a two-day tour of routes I haven’t used in a long time. It was a delight.

For example, hop on the 111 bus, from Chelsea to Haymarket during morning rush hour. The experience is everything transit should be. 

It comes every five minutes, and is full of low-income workers and families. It flies to Haymarket in minutes with brand-new buses in dedicated bus lanes. Each glorious ride is a symphony that required years of work by many people inside and outside of MBTA.

The commuter rail is the best it has been in years. There have been tremendous improvements to the Orange, Blue, Red, and Green Lines. Their cars are often old, but so much about the rider experience has been vastly improved. There is better technology everywhere, with countdown clocks and video screens at stations. As an organization, the MBTA is more diverse, data-driven, accessible, accountable, and engaged with the public.

A key concept in the post-pandemic MBTA is that the vastly-improved bus system is the biggest component now, with about 280,000 riders; greater than the rail lines. Many bus-only lanes have been added, and new ones are coming. The bus network redesign that was rolled out for public comment is a triumph. After decades of the MBTA not caring enough about the people that ride buses, this commitment to them is an overdue payment of social justice.

But if the MBTA is vastly better, why are there serious safety problems? A few reasons. A lot of the old equipment still hasn’t been replaced. Until recently, there was not enough organizational focus and processes around the ingredients of a safer system. The workforce is also stressed out from years of tough management, staff shortages, and COVID working conditions. It is also too difficult to fire employees who have committed safety violations, thanks to union-sponsored protections that thwart the public interest. 

Is any of this the result of the management approach of the Baker’s administration? Perhaps. That strategy is the source of both the strong bones and the tired muscles of MBTA. It is also the underlying cause of the media criticism, and will also be the subject of the  legislative hearings. Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, even said up front that the focus will be Baker, not the GM, nor operations. 

What was the approach? In 2015, the Baker administration embarked on a business-like, capital-project-first approach, which can be seen clearly in the complaints of many employees interviewed for the MBTA’s 2019 safety report, and also in the billions of dollars of repairs accomplished.

One way to think of the strategy is that it has been anaerobic exercise: high-intensity workouts that build strength and bones, but they don’t build long-term endurance, as aerobic exercise would, such as jogging. 

Considering the osteoporosis throughout the assets of the system in 2015, this bone-building approach made sense. But the employees, not used to being driven so hard, and certainly not used to an administration on the other side of the collective bargaining table that was so forceful, strained under these workouts. 

This strain was cited as a safety risk in the 2019 report. It probably was. But very old equipment is also a safety problem. For those who think Baker’s managers shouldn’t have driven the employees so hard to fix things, they should contemplate which billion dollars of current new equipment would they replace with the previous equipment from the 1970s. How safe would that be? 

The criticism of relentless repair work brings to mind the administration’s vaccination drive. It was very successful, even though many advocates and legislators were unhappy that it did not meet their requirements. Yet what mattered most to the public was the speed of shots in arms, and also that we became one of the most highly-vaccinated states. Similarly, the public probably wants as many dollars to be put into fixing the infrastructure of the MBTA as possible, and to know that we are doing well compared to other American transit systems that have the same problems. If these things are what they wanted, they are getting them. 

And the administration’s goals for MBTA were not only about modernizing the assets. They also included forcing organizational change, especially by using private companies. This was initially aided by the MBTA’s controversial, three-year exemption from the Pacheco Law, which makes it so difficult to hire private contractors that state agencies often don’t bother trying. The administration used this exemption quite well, and not just to save money to be used on repairs, but as a way to bring in outside knowledge and to spur reform in other areas. 

Seeking outside expertise will continue to be crucial to the MBTA’s progress, whether it is from the federal government, peer transit systems, related industries, or private firms. Look at how well private sector expertise worked in rescuing the Green Line extension. The MBTA also welcomed federal oversight and expertise this year.

Learning from others is critical because the agency’s traditional isolation has been one of its great weaknesses, and still is, despite real progress in opening things up.

There is no doubt Baker’s overall approach has worn down activists and the media, many of whom view transit as a set of civic religious obligations which should not be handled like a business, nor be reduced due to decreased rider demand. From the outrage we saw after pandemic service cuts, we learned that running near-empty buses is apparently proof of our virtues, even though their extra carbon emissions were a hypocrisy against other virtues.

In fact, it was the pandemic-induced drop in ridership which broke the spirits of so many who were reluctantly going along with the administration’s tough-love-and-progress narrative. It was unthinkable that the MBTA’s aspirations might shrink, that many riders were gone for good, that the future held fare increases and service reductions. This wasn’t what everyone expected at the end of Baker’s reforms. The narrative was gone. The safety problems, including the death of a rider, pushed everyone off the tracks. Political support crumbled, the media turned negative, and the Legislature entered the chat. 

What can legislators do now? Quite a bit. They are already saying it’s time for oxygen to be added to the MBTA’s operational workouts, in the form of greater funding and perhaps a larger operating budget to comply with the safety requirements of the federal government. 

They can also change the mission by making new demands, such as the recently announced push in the Senate to require a low-income fare program.  

How much can the Legislature do to improve operations? It can insist on better transparency and it can also repair what I see as an incorrect conclusion in the MBTA’s safety report. It said the original Fiscal and Management Control Board had too many public meetings, preparing for them took too much staff time, and managers were doing that work instead of focusing on safety. This finding was a major reason the board was changed. 

Dozens of public meetings a year were a staff burden. A former MBTA staff member who was involved spoke out about the tradeoffs. Whether all that staff time and exposure is worth it depends on what you believe are the MBTA’s root problems, and what future governors might do about them.

There is no question that after a few years, FMCB meetings felt like political theater, and, to be frank, transit activists were enjoying them too much. However, forcing the MBTA to put its people and plans into the public square is better for the agency over the long term, especially as future governors will almost certainly favor the unions, weakening reforms. As we are unlikely to see another Republican governor and certainly not managers like Brian Shortsleeve or Steve Poftak, the Legislature must consider where the motivation for progress is going to come from.

The current board does not meet often enough, and does not seem to be gaining as much public attention as is needed. The previous board was also more demanding of the agency, expressed righteous frustration in public, and sometimes disagreed with the governor, which was all healthy. The constructive pressures of the FMCB must be re-created in light of what was learned from those meetings.

What lies ahead? The next governor is not going to use the philosophy of the Baker administration, even if she is impressed at all that was fixed. The most important things for her to do are to make sure the MBTA keeps gaining industry knowledge; that it engages with the public; and that it experiences thorough, periodic assessments by outsiders.

The politics around the MBTA will heal as the organization recovers under the watch of the federal government. GM Steve Poftak also recently announced that two-thirds of the problems in the 2019 report have been solved. The system is becoming safer. A new administration will also let the public and the media reset the political narrative.

Meet the Author

Ed Lyons

Political writer and Republican activist
Despite recent problems, the turnaround of the MBTA is still a great story. But it is longer, and more difficult, than we imagined.

Ed Lyons is a Republican activist and political writer.