Sometimes a Mr. Fix-it needs to get under the hood
More on that Baker visit to the Red Line derailment site
IT MUST HAVE BEEN A SIGHT. Gov. Charlie Baker, who has steadfastly refused to ride the MBTA as governor, was nevertheless there on a Red Line passenger platform about a week after the June 11 derailment and crash that has precipitated a summer full of delays.
The governor wasn’t at JFK/UMass to catch a train, but to talk to the engineers and others tasked with restoring normal service to the T’s busiest subway line, and to lay eyes on the wreckage. There were no television cameras or news photographers there to memorialize the visit, which took place in the waning twilight of a warm overcast evening. It wasn’t on his public schedule, and he only disclosed it somewhat clumsily roughly a week later.
In some ways it was vintage Baker. A Republican with a talent for avoiding the partisan fray of politics and reaping the rewards for that discretion, Baker sometimes finds refuge in minutiae, where he can bring his famed “weed-whacker” approach to forgotten corners of government without doing too much to upset the general order of things. The governor’s remedy after his visit was to accelerate repair work throughout the system, even if that means night and weekend closures to secure more “track time,” and to propose $50 million in surplus money to help the T handle its workload. The biggest criticisms of that approach was that it wasn’t enough, mere tinkering.
Baker has earned some credit from his fellow pols for going there – stepping over a de-electrified third rail to see the damage from the June 11 crash up close – but it hasn’t completely quieted the calls for him to actually step aboard a train, a bus, or a trolley. Some, including the state Democratic Party, have publicly encouraged the Republican governor to take the T so he can see for himself what regular riders experience, while others have dismissed that sort of thing as partisan point-scoring. The governor insists it’s not his job to be a straphanger.
But Baker fully understands the symbolic value of the governor doing things outside of the usual job description. This is a man who has repeatedly had his head shaved for charity, rode a bicycle dozens of miles to raise money for cancer research, put on waders to stock Jamaica Pond with trout, and even played a friendly game of horse with Maura Healey, who, like Baker, played hoops for Harvard College before winning statewide office.
To Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who was not there for the June 19 visit to the Red Line, the excursion was in keeping with Baker’s approach to fact-finding and problem-solving over his four-and-a-half years as the state’s chief executive.
“He has always been someone who pays attention to the details, that wants to collect the information, and sometimes you can get that with a report, but sometimes you just can’t fully appreciate the nature of the thing you’re analyzing without seeing it firsthand, and he’s very hands-on in that way,” Polito said. “Very thoughtful when he’s looking to problem-solve, which is what the people of this Commonwealth expect leaders to do.”
Baker has made a similar effort to see for himself what happened after explosions and fires rocked the Merrimack Valley last September, and he has had unpublicized visits with the workers who keep the roads clear during major snowstorms, according to staff.
Not all see the visit to the Red Line crash site as an example of the governor’s managerial style; some see it as public relations.
“It’s a sort of a thing that governors do. It’s a public relations exercise. In and of itself it accomplishes nothing,” said David Tuerck, executive director of the conservative Beacon Hill Institute. “But it was probably called for considering the criticism that he’s under concerning the management of the T.”
If the governor’s motivation was publicity, then he had an odd way of getting the word out. The public didn’t learn about Baker’s nighttime visit to the Red Line derailment site until almost a week later. The governor didn’t announce it – even as an aside – until a reporter asked why he had decided to accelerate work on the system. When he talked about it, the governor flubbed the day of the week that it occurred, which would be a curious error if he had intended to use it as a talking point. Baker’s press office provided scant details about the visit despite repeated prodding.
A week and a day before the governor’s trip to the track at the JFK/UMass station, in the early morning of June 11, a 50-year-old Red Line car derailed and destroyed signal boxes controlling miles of track. Video of the incident shows a big flash from the rear of the train and then a few seconds later a spray of sparks or flames when the southbound train car smashed into the signal sheds.
The governor decided to go to the site in the early afternoon of June 19, according to Baker and his staff, and the governor told Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack about his decision that day.
“I would like to just go to JFK and I want to see it, because I want to see what happened, what they look like, and get a sense about that,” the governor recalled telling Pollack.
That evening, Baker was feted by the Environmental Business Council New England at an award ceremony in Newton, and, after giving a speech, he left around 8 p.m., according to a spokesperson for the business-backed group. From there, the governor traveled to Dorchester where he spoke on the passenger platform with some workers.
In general, MBTA workers and contractors are required to have something called right-of-way certification to go down to the area on or near where the trains pass by. In response to questions about whether the governor had such certification or needed it, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the track next to the destroyed signal sheds was “out of service with no power to the third rail at the time (meaning no trains were using it).”
After chatting with the workers, Baker went down and took a look at the destroyed sheds, which the T calls signal bungalows and the governor pointedly calls walk-in-closets.
“We walked off the edge of the platform, down the stairs, across the tracks, over the third rail, to where these three walk-in closets were. Calling them bungalows is like such an insult to bungalows everywhere,” Baker said when asked about his visit at a press conference. At the South Coast Rail event, the governor explained more about what he saw and his big takeaway, saying, “One of the things that became clear to me looking at that walk-in closet – it’s not a bungalow, a bungalow has thatched roofs and umbrellas. Like everything else I ever see when I go to the T, it’s technology that’s so old and so brittle that I just came up and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to find more track time.’”
The implications of that decision for riders are that there will be more night and weekend closures, and the T will have more time to do maintenance and upgrades, which should bring the system into better repair faster than the earlier schedule. The damage to the signal systems has added delays to Red Line travel because now signaling and track switching is done manually by workers in the stations and out on the tracks. Based on the MBTA’s Twitter feed, which alerts travelers to problems with the system, there were no major issues with the Red Line around the time of the governor’s visit. The governor said he was there for about an hour.
The governor’s account of his visit has been hazy at times and vivid at others. The governor recently said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak accompanied him on the visit, but Poftak said he wasn’t there. Baker also at first said he thought he had gone to the site on a Thursday, but his staff said he went on a Wednesday. At other times, the governor has spoken animatedly about what he saw, using his outstretched arms to demonstrate to reporters how close the signal systems were to the track where trains regularly passed by.
While there is plenty of evidence undermining the idea that the visit was merely a publicity stunt, it could have some lasting political value for the governor now at the beginning of his second term and thinking about potentially running for a third. The trip may have inoculated Baker somewhat from Democrats’ criticisms that he has been too removed from the struggles of T commuters. Now the governor has seen the worst of it up close.Rep. Mike Connolly disagrees with Baker on a host of issues including state funding for the T, which Connolly thinks is far less than what is needed. Yet, the Cambridge Democrat said he thinks Baker’s visit to the crash site was helpful.
“It’s always important to witness a scene of an incident like that,” said Connolly.