Poftak outlines his priorities for MBTA

‘I think I’m a little more interactive than Bill Belichick’

STEVE POFTAK, the MBTA’s new general manager, started to put his imprint on the transit authority on Monday, outlining five priorities for the agency that include recruiting high-quality employees and keeping the T on track to meet its capital spending targets.

“I look forward to bringing stability and continuity to this role,” said Poftak, who assumed command at the T on January 3. Poftak, who had been a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, replaces Luis Ramirez, who left after 15 months on the job. Poftak is the fifth general manager at the T since Gov. Charlie Baker took office in 2015.

At a briefing with reporters and at a meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, Poftak said his five priorities would be employee and passenger safety; recruitment of talented employees; execution of the T’s five-year, $8 billion capital improvement plan; operating performance improvement; and fiscal discipline.

Poftak spent most of Monday talking about the capital improvement plan, which is central to the T’s efforts to turn itself around. The plan calls for the T to spend $8 billion between fiscal 2019, which began on July 1, 2018, and fiscal 2023, which ends July 1, 2023. Of the $8 billion, $6.7 billion would go for projects designed to bring the T into a state of good repair.

The goal is to spend $1 billion during the current fiscal year, nearly $1.7 billion the next two years, and close to $2 billion in years four and five. The amounts represent a huge ramp-up in spending; last year, the T spent $875 million and that was a record amount. Spending goes for infrastructure as well as vehicles.

Members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board indicated they were concerned the spending targets would not be met. Brian Shortsleeve, a former general manager himself, said one of the biggest challenges is gaining access to tracks and other facilities to perform work. Currently, the T tries to do most of the work on weekends and at night, when the T isn’t running or ridership is low. But Shortsleeve said it may be necessary to shut sections of the system down for longer periods to complete the necessary work.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack urged Poftak to bunch projects together that affect a specific part of the transit system so shutdowns and rider diversions can be minimized.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, called the capital spending plan “a giant lift” whose success is uncertain. “If we don’t change the way we do our fundamental business, we’re going to fail,” he said.

Through the first half of the current fiscal year, the T spent $439 million of its capital budget, or about 44 percent of the target for fiscal 2019. Poftak said the T is on schedule to meet its target for this year because capital spending tends to start slow and then ramp up in the second half of the year.

Poftak said he is ordering an in-depth review of the T’s capital spending plans to be completed within three months. He said the review would help the T see where it stands on capital spending and what it needs to do to meet its goals.

When Pollack announced she was replacing Ramirez with Poftak, she said Ramirez had brought badly needed business skills to the T but the needs of the agency had changed.  She said Poftak was the person to bring visible improvements to the agency.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Neither Pollack nor members of the control board have shown any interest in having a public discussion about what went wrong with the Ramirez appointment. The board has acted almost as if Ramirez never existed. Poftak took a similar approach on Monday, declining to say when Pollack initially broached the idea of him taking over as general manager or commenting on what she expected from him.

“This organization has to move forward,” he said. “That’s where my focus is.”

When it was suggested he and other T officials sound a lot like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who after a loss often refuses to discuss what went wrong and instead says he’s on to the next game, Poftak quipped, “I think I’m a little more interactive than Bill Belichick.”