The underinflated MBTA football

There should be as much handwringing about the MBTA as there is about Tom Brady and underinflated footballs.

But there isn’t. MBTA riders are waiting on Gov. Charlie Baker and state lawmakers to do the right thing and fix the T once and for all.  The problem is that despite the winter of 2015, doing the right thing seems to be less important than using the MBTA as a political football to score political points.

Baker has focused on governance rather than the oft-tread topic of finances, and his hand-picked MBTA review panel came up with a plan for a fiscal and management control board.  Sen. Thomas McGee, the Senate transportation committee co-chair, rejected that proposal, preferring to give the governor an expanded board and direct authority through the secretary of transportation to hire the MBTA general manager.

In a speech to the Lynn Chamber of Commerce, McGee outlined his opposition to the T reform plan being pushed by Baker, but then added: “You’re the governor – it’s up to you to make sure the MBTA works properly.”

If McGee believes that an expanded MassDOT board will fix the MBTA, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack shot down that notion.

At the first meeting of the new MassDOT board Wednesday, Polito reminded the group that they had oversight authority for multiple agencies, not just transit, but for highways, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, aeronautics, and other rail sectors like freight. In case that wasn’t clear, Pollack cut to the chase: “What I and the governor do not expect you to be is a fiscal and management control board for the MBTA.”

Translation: the Baker administration is pushing back against the Senate’s talking point that seven people (or even 11 under the governor’s reform plan) meeting once a month over the next three years can deal with an agency in crisis.  All it takes is a few hours in a MassDOT board meeting to understand that it is not the vehicle that can accomplish an overhaul of the MBTA.

What is also clear is that Senate leaders view the prospect of a control board as some sort of existential threat to “one MassDOT,” political shorthand for undermining the Massachusetts Department of Transportation with a new layer of bureaucracy. How a temporary control board creates a new, permanent layer of bureaucracy has yet to be explained.

Ironically, Baker faces a problem similar to the one former governor Deval Patrick faced when he identified financing as the major problem facing the MBTA: Overreach.

Patrick’s $1 billion finance plan was rejected out of hand because it came with a list of add-ons, changes to the tax code and money for education, that state lawmakers found untenable. Instead of dealing with the reality that the MBTA needed a consistent infusion of cash or a revamped funding mechanism, lawmakers stripped away half of the funding Patrick requested.

Similarly, Baker set the table for the pushback he’s now getting. By expressing “frustration” and “disappointment” with the MBTA workforce and running off a popular, highly regarded general manager during the historic blizzards of 2015, the rank and file view Baker as a threat to their livelihoods, instead of someone who could improve the MBTA for their benefit.

Then Baker touched the third rail of Massachusetts politics by going after the Pacheco Law that mandates proof of savings before privatizing. It’s debatable whether the Pacheco law is a key factor in the profound fiscal and management failures at the MBTA. But for union members, even a temporary suspension of the Pacheco law is a union-busting tactic.

Despite Baker’s assertions to contrary, they remain convinced that he aims to finish what his mentor former governor Bill Weld started by privatizing more state services.

Proposing to repeal caps on fare increases and revoking dedicated financial assistance to the MBTA, where the “B” should stand for bankrupt, also makes his motives suspect in the eyes of riders and transit advocates.

Yet the riding public cares not a whit about political footballs like “one MassDOT” or the Pacheco law. Baker understands that and his impatience with McGee’s political tactics is beginning to show. He told the State House News Service, “There seems to be a recalcitrance or an unwillingness to make the kinds of changes that are necessary to truly fix the T.”

McGee and others may be gambling that Charlie Baker gets the blame and suffers the electoral consequences if MBTA fails to improve or suffers another meltdown.  But with two rounds of ineffective MBTA reforms behind them and, another perhaps in the works, Baker has some cards to play, too, namely that political leaders like McGee aren’t serious about dealing with the MBTA.




In an interview with the Lowell Sun, Senate President Stan Rosenberg says he doesn’t know a better public manager than Gov. Charlie Baker.

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