Members of T control board say goodbye
House and Senate approaches on next board differ
THE MEMBERS of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board bid a final farewell on Monday as lawmakers on Beacon Hill continued to trade proposals about what a successor board should look like and how it should operate.
The current five board members, including three who have held their voluntary positions for the past six years (and 218 meetings), accepted thanks from the public and T officials and gave short speeches of their own at the end of the meeting.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, a former member of the control board, said one of the panel’s top accomplishments has been increasing the capital spending budget, which is used to expand service and maintain the infrastructure in a state of good repair. He said the T’s capital spending budget, which was just over $600 million in fiscal 2014, is going to hit $1.8 billion this fiscal year, and is projected to rise to $2 billion next year.
Brian Lang, a union official who has served on the board for six years, said the T’s problem in the early years wasn’t a shortage of money but a lack of key personnel who could oversee capital projects. Now, he said, the staff is there to get the work done, but resources are becoming the chief concern.
He also said the operating budget needs attention, particularly with 25 cents of every dollar in the operating budget going to pay interest on the T’s debt. “That is not sustainable going forward,” he said, saying the amount of money going for debt service needs to be cut in half.
Lang and fellow board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt in their remarks pushed for means-tested fares – fares adjusted to the income level of the rider.
Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the board, also said the T must revamp its “stagnant organizational structure” to address the needs of marginalized employees and riders. “We have to continue to act and build a system not just for those in the right neighborhoods with the right amount of money and skin color,” she said.
Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, agreed with Tibbits-Nutt that the culture of the agency needs to change – “culture beats strategy,” he said – but he also sounded optimistic that Poftak has built a management team that can make that happen.
When he joined the board in 2015, Aiello said, transportation advocates and the public were at odds with the T. “We entered a situation where the two sides didn’t trust each other,” he said. “That really has changed.”
Aiello said he also hopes any future T board is given the resources and the independence to tackle the many challenges facing it. He also urged a future board to “resist short-term views that the T’s best days are behind it.”
While the control board was saying goodbye, the Senate Ways and Means Committee introduced its version of a supplemental spending bill that included a provision creating a new MBTA board that is different in some respects from what Gov. Charlie Baker and the House have proposed. The Senate is expected to take up the bill later this week.
The Senate bill differs from the one passed by the House in that it calls for appointees to come from slightly different backgrounds, mandates more subcommittees of the board, and requires more meetings. The Senate bill calls for one of the governor’s appointees to be a T rider from an environmental justice community within the T service area, a proposal that was hailed by Lang in his remarks.
The key difference between the two branches is the number of meetings the board would hold. The House bill sets a minimum of 12 meetings a year, while the Senate version calls for 20, including at least one each month.
The Senate target on meetings is similar to the way the current board operates. The board was initially required to meet 36 times a year, or three times a month. The board on its own scaled back to roughly twice a month after an independent safety panel recommended fewer meetings so T staff could spend more time doing their jobs and less time testifying before the control board.
Members of the control board on Monday didn’t weigh in on the issue of how many meetings the next board should hold, but they made clear that transparency is a high priority. Judging from the board’s agenda, there is no shortage of matters requiring the board’s attention for three to five hours twice a month.Indeed, Aiello on Monday was trying to move quickly through the agenda items so the board members could have a chance to say a few words before wrapping up for good at 4 p.m. As Aiello came to the end of the agenda, the T staffer who was supposed to present the last action item was not on the Zoom call.
Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager of the T, suggested the board move ahead and leave the item for an upcoming meeting. Aiello smiled and said he was willing to wait. The staffer was located, made his presentation, and the T voted its approval. Whether the MBTA has a new board next month to take up such matters is now up to the Legislature.