Sargent and Dukakis offer lessons for Healey

New governor must be willing to challenge legacy policies, mindsets

AS THE DAYS dwindle down toward another Boston winter, a new gubernatorial administration prepares to occupy the rabbit warren of office space dedicated to the executive branch in the Bulfinch State House. Speculation abounds as office seekers, would-be influencers, and self-imagined power brokers vie for attention by the Great Mentioners of the local media. It is a ritual, this interregnum of conjecture and hearsay that occupies our attention while somewhere, a few people actually empowered to make decisions are laboring away at the impossibly daunting task of selecting a team of people to guide the Commonwealth during the next four years.

This effort is an exercise in multitasking because it is not just about finding the right people to fill key positions, it is also about identifying and mastering the issues that need to be engaged in the first days and weeks after taking office. And if there is one overarching area that consistently fails to offer a new governor a honeymoon period, it is the transportation system. Winter storms may come soon after inauguration day, causing havoc on roads and transit systems. The underfunded and morale-shaken MBTA, straining under the weight of failed austerity practices, a potential Federal Transit Administration safety receivership, and underfunded operating and capital budgets, will inevitably deliver unanticipated problems at any time, any day, without warning or notice. The imminent closing of the Sumner Tunnel for five months without a comprehensive mitigation plan in place looms as a nightmare in the making.

A new administration brings with it a large measure of hope and optimism that failed policies can be redirected, that genuine progress can occur in reasonable timeframes rather than in slow motion, that new energy and creative thinking can lift us from the low point we’ve reached in the delivery of transit services. The next general manager of the MBTA will have two overarching tasks presented on day one: restoring employee morale and restoring rider confidence. These are not achievable without an extraordinary level of sustained effort, and new funding support from the Legislature, but they are necessary for the future of a viable regional transit system. Nor are they achievable without the unqualified support of the new governor and her team, willing to challenge legacy policies, reimagine legacy infrastructure, and reject legacy mindsets.

Maura Healey (Photo by Michael Jonas)

There’s nothing in the record that suggests Gov.-elect Maura Healey has the style or inclination to be a disruptive leader. But restoring rider confidence in the T does not require a disruptive governor. It requires a transformational one. Massachusetts has been blessed with two governors in the last half century who were transformational when it came to how they and their transportation secretaries thought and acted: Frank Sargent and Mike Dukakis.

Sargent was a Republican and former highway commissioner.  He was most assuredly not a disruptor, but he was forward looking and willing to challenge the status quo and ingrained assumptions.  It was 50 years ago today (November 30, 1972) when Sargent killed the Southwest Corridor Highway, which would have torn the city and region apart in order to facilitate the movement of autos in and out of the city. In so doing, Sargent actually prevented the disruption of communities and neighborhoods that are vibrant urban spaces today.

He addressed the Commonwealth that November evening in a televised address and said:

“The problems of transportation have held us prisoner for 40 years and recently that captivity has become intolerable. You, your family, your neighbor have become caught in a system that’s fouled our air, ravaged our cities, choked our economy, and frustrated every single one of us. To move ourselves, our goods, and our services, we’ve built more and more and bigger and better super highways and expressways. They seemed the easiest, most obvious answer to our multiplying needs. What we misunderstood was what those highways would create: massive traffic congestion.”

Everything Sargent said that night 50 years ago could be said again today. Sargent created a path for Mike Dukakis to implement a variety of pro-transit initiatives, including extending the Red Line to Alewife and relocating the Orange Line as an underground subway, enabling the construction of the Southwest Corridor Park, a greenspace linking the city from Forest Hills to the Back Bay. Sargent and Dukakis understood that the future of metro Boston would depend on a thriving, expansive, and responsive public transportation system, providing people with good and affordable access to jobs, healthcare, education, and other opportunities.

That transportation network proved its value over time and, as recently as 2018, a report published by the business advocacy organization A Better City revealed that the proximity of jobs and housing clustered at transit nodes in metro Boston was a major reason why metro Boston has one of the nation’s highest levels of productivity, despite our generally higher cost of living as compared to other US metropolitan areas. That dividend is at risk today, as the MBTA has faltered and failed to respond to the post-pandemic need to offer high quality, reliable services to metro Boston residents.

A new transformational governor can make a difference and redirect policies toward progress. I won’t get into specific initiatives in this article (stay tuned for more), but I will say one thing that’s important as a way to think about the great challenge the incoming administration will face.  There will be a lot of pressure to center safety as the top priority of the MBTA.  As a frequent T rider, I certainly want and expect the system to be safe, but safety is not the only priority that should occupy the time and attention of new transportation leaders beginning in January. There is an equally high value to a system that provides reliable service at frequencies that are much better than the current 15 minute wait times (or worse) on the subway system.

The safest transit system is one where nothing moves.  We can’t sacrifice system efficiency, reliability, and frequency on the altar of safety – this is a false choice. Transit advocates and T riders know it and won’t tolerate it. I’m not saying that this transformation will be easy or quick to solve, but there are initiatives that can be taken in the first weeks and months of the new administration that will determine whether it can be the transformational force we desperately need. I’ll sy more about that in a follow-up article.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board of directors.