Reaching an MBTA consensus

Committee bill goes long way toward getting to yes

IN 1990, when John Silber became the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor, I supported Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci in their gubernatorial bid.  I’ve been a lifelong Democrat (although lately I am impressed by the potential for positive change offered by the United Independent Party), and supporting Republicans wasn’t something I ever thought I would do.  But I was a Frank Bellotti guy and I could not bring myself to support Silber, whose conservatism and “my way or the highway” style didn’t sit well with me. I hosted a house party for Weld and Cellucci at my home on Columbus Day, before the parade in East Boston, and I said I was supporting Weld because he, like Lincoln in a different time and under very different circumstances, was appealing to the “better angels of our nature.”

Once Weld was in office, we had a strained relationship, born out of his attempts to privatize the Turnpike Authority and my efforts (as its general counsel) to maintain its massive reconstruction program and statutory independence. Many harsh words were exchanged in the press, many hardballs thrown on the legislative playing field.  Yet by the end of my tenure at the Turnpike in 1996, before Weld finally was able to control the board, I had developed a strong personal relationship with his two leading transportation officials, Jim Kerasiotes and Pat Moynihan.  Developing those relationships – which turned over time into friendships – was hard work, requiring the passage of time and demonstrations of trust, but it was worth the effort: We were able to collaborate on the creation of the Metropolitan Highway System legislation and build a legislative consensus regarding the operation and financing of the Big Dig.

Some years later I was again in the middle of a tough negotiation, this time around the creation of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.  The players were different, principally Mitt Romney and Matt Amorello, two men who didn’t like one another and who rarely saw eye to eye.  Many people contributed to the effort to build consensus, not least Judge Edmund Reggie, Vicki Kennedy’s father, who was a major behind-the-scenes driver of the Greenway.  Consensus was reached and an agreement signed the week of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, and in a ceremony presided over by Ted Kennedy the parties celebrated their achievement.

My reverie brings me to today, and the current effort to enact into law another MBTA “reform” bill.  We are approaching the mid-point of the year, and following from the winter MBTA meltdown, the final outcome remains unsettled. What hasn’t happened yet is the building of broad consensus that, if reached, would begin the process of restoration of the public transportation system.

Developing consensus requires compromise and negotiation.  Compromise is difficult because no one wants to abandon strongly felt beliefs; successful negotiation requires more skill than most people realize. The great Harvard professor Roger Fisher, in his groundbreaking book Getting to Yes, introduced the idea of BATNA: the best alternative to a negotiated agreement.  You need to know your BATNA before you enter negotiations, because the best alternative to a deal must be understood and accepted if you decide to walk away from the negotiating table. Knowing your BATNA prevents both parties from accepting a one-sided deal, and it’s a way of urging the parties to consensus, because often the best alternative isn’t a very good one.

Consensus is the child of compromise and persuasion. Without it, little can get done.  This is true whenever people from different ideologies or mindsets are required to make decisions – it is as true for legislatures as it is for condo associations or boards of directors. Without the development of consensus, big things, great things, will not get done.

Ideologues resist consensus because, by definition, it represents a combination of ideas rather than a pure and rigid point of view.  Rigidity rarely works in government because it keeps bumping into the larger desire for people to have meaningful input and influence over decisions that they are asked to make.

Former governor Weld was a famous negotiator and compromiser.  As a result he got a lot done – not everything he wanted, to be sure, but a lot nevertheless.  Former Senate President William Bulger famously developed consensus with Weld over a number of issues, and the two leaders developed a rapport that enabled them to govern in an effective partnership.  In his memoir While the Music Lasts, Bulger recalls informing Weld that he, the governor, should abandon his plan to eliminate the MDC. When Weld responded, “You forget, I am the governor,” Bulger said, “Never mind that stuff – we’re the governor.”  At that, the two laughed and Weld whispered to Bulger: “If that plan bothers you, we’ll strangle it in its crib.”  That’s how public policy is often developed.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation has developed a bill that ought to go a long way toward developing broad consensus to fix the MBTA.  It can be embraced by the governor as victory, it can be embraced by the Legislature as a step in the right direction, and it can be embraced by transit advocates and riders as a way to keep faith with important principles of modal equity and justice.

The bill is the work of Senator Thomas McGee of Lynn and Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, although given recent comments by Speaker Robert DeLeo it seems that the bill has more of the Senate in it than the House.  McGee and Senate President Stan Rosenberg are old hands at shaping legislative consensus.  Between them they have a combined 50 years of experience in the Legislature.  McGee’s dad was the speaker of the House and Rosenberg was mentored by a giant of the Western Massachusetts political scene, John Olver.  As the saying goes, this is not their first rodeo.

Baker has taken a strong first step of allocating $83 million in targeted efforts to prevent a recurrence of the worst of last winter. He has also called for a variety of reforms and structural changes at the T, many of which are included in the transportation committee’s bill.  Certainly not everything the governor has asked for is in the bill, notably an end to binding arbitration as we know it (something I agree with him on), but there is enough for him to rightly claim victory.

The bill now before the Legislature gives the governor his fiscal control board, but requires that a majority of its members be chosen from the gubernatorially appointed MassDOT board.  It enables that board to do many things, including the power to raise fares, review and revise contracts, and make specific budgetary decisions. The bill wisely enables the MBTA to take advantage of creative alternative construction procurement methods that are likely to speed things up, improve quality, and lower costs.  The bill does not lift the cap on T fares, thus preserving modal and social equity and ensuring an egalitarian transit system.  I wish the bill included a reform of the current privatization law, which (unlike the unfairly maligned Pacheco law) is a significant impediment to the adoption of smart public-private partnerships.  Perhaps that last bit will come at a later time.

What makes the Rosenberg/McGee approach to governing so appealing to me is that it follows from a philosophy that looks at government as the last, best hope for the protection of those who lack powerful voices in the corridors of power.  My political mentor, former Attorney General Frank Bellotti, expressed it well at his second inaugural as AG: “Although government must be run efficiently, and hard-earned tax dollars must be spent wisely, and although many proven business practices must be used, government is not, in fact, a business.  It is not a profit and loss statement.  It relates to people. People are its common denominator, the sole and only reason for the existence of government.” Bellotti’s words sound a message to us today: If our public transportation system is anything, it must be an egalitarian system that responds to the mobility needs and preferences of all citizens.  It ought to be the foundational platform for economic growth and social equity: Those two objectives can, and must, coexist.

If ever there was a time to develop consensus around an important public issue, it is now and in connection with the MBTA.  The bill endorsed by the Legislature’s transportation committee responds seriously and substantively to the governor’s original proposal, it responds fairly and meaningfully to the transit riders and advocates, and it contains structural changes that will have a beneficial impact on how the T is managed and does business.

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This is not a time to dredge up and re-litigate old ideological battles regarding privatization, nor is it a time to ignore T riders or the changing mobility paradigms of our times. Transit advocates are concerned about the current state of play and rightly so.  They worry about the social justice implications of eliminating the Diesel Multiple Unit program for the Fairmount Line (something separate and apart from this bill), and they worry about the call to lift the cap on T fares and charge full freight for transfers.  These voices need to be heard and reflected in a final bill in order to develop the kind of consensus that will have all players pulling the rope in the same direction. That is an outcome that ought to be preferable to all others.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.