T off to slow start on commuter rail makeover

Control board deadline passes with little action

THE MBTA IS OFF to a slow start in developing a plan to transform the state’s commuter rail system so it can provide more subway-like service.

At a November 4 meeting, the Fiscal and Management Control Board passed five resolutions laying out a vision for a commuter rail system of the future that would rely primarily on electric trains providing service every 15 to 20 minutes on the busiest lines. The resolutions called for the new service to launch in phases, with the first phase focusing on the Providence/Stoughton line, the Fairmount line, and the section of the Rockport/Newburyport Line that runs between Boston and Lynn.

The board in early November called for MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak to report back at Monday’s meeting with a staffing plan for the “rail transformation office,” a budget to support the office, target completion dates for the first phase, and a work plan for this year and next.

Poftak provided considerably less. Rob DiAdamo, the MBTA’s executive director of commuter rail, presented a three-page sheet to the control board that sketched out a rough organizational chart for five officials overseeing the commuter rail transformation and laid out some vague duties and responsibilities. Under “next steps,” DiAdamo promised to report back in the spring with a consultant work plan for fiscal 2021, which starts July 1.

Poftak said the absence of budget information and target completion dates for phase one of the rail transformation process can be traced to the T’s efforts to deal with issues raised by an outside safety panel’s report in early December.

“We have focused a great deal of internal effort on addressing the safety report and prioritizing the safety initiatives, so, I think , in consultation with the board, we’ve gotten a little more leeway in delivering on that,” Poftak said, referring to the rail transformation planning.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the control board, said she was not troubled by the vague commuter rail report. She said the T’s commuter rail operation needs additional staff and time to begin addressing the issues raised by the board’s resolution. She said she expected a much fuller report in the spring.

Meanwhile, T staff seemed to be making much more progress in building out a bus transformation office within the transit agency. Officials presented a fairly detailed organizational  chart revolving around a bus transformation project management office combined with added staff in support functions and bus operations.

The T is planning to add five to seven employees in the project management office and an additional 57.5 employees in support functions and bus operations. The presentation said more than 60 employees had been added to work on the T’s bus operations in the last year alone.

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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.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack questioned how the T could help employees in different areas communicate with each other better. Christof Spieler, a consultant who has been hired to advise the T on its bus transformation, said he did not think communication between different teams at the MBTA was the problem.

“The problem here is not silos. The problem here is bandwidth,” Spieler said. “We are simply asking too much of a limited number of people.”