The central recommendation of the Governor’s MBTA task force was greater accountability for the MBTA. I agree — the management team needs direct accountability to the Governor. That accountability will give the team the strength it needs to sharpen its focus and make change happen.
Currently, the management team is accountable to the board of directors of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, MassDOT. That board is, in turn, appointed by the Governor. This structure does give the Governor control of the MBTA, once he or she has appointed all of the members of the MassDOT board. The structure dates to the 2009 transportation reforms which were, in fact, designed to strengthen gubernatorial accountability for transportation.
The task force recommended that Governor Baker request the resignations of the MassDOT board (all Patrick appointees). He has acted on that recommendation and, as of this writing, his fresh request is pending. Without judging the performance of any member of the board or the board as a whole, it is entirely reasonable, and, in fact, essential for the state’s new chief executive to ask and receive full control of the board. His performance as a Governor will be judged, in no small part, based on his performance in addressing the deep problems of the MBTA. As long as responsibility remains nominally lodged in a lame duck board, it will be impossible to give MassDOT or the MBTA the clarity of direction that they badly need.
Additionally, I support the task force recommendation that the Secretary of Transportation, who serves at the pleasure of the Governor, chair the MassDOT board. With a highly motivated MassDOT Secretary chairing a supportive board, the Governor will have the direct line of supervision that he needs to make change happen.
I am puzzled by the task force recommendation that a separate control board be created to govern the MBTA. MassDOT and the MBTA need to work closely together — their federal funding sources are controlled by the same Metropolitan Planning Organization and they often need to coordinate projects and operations. It was the recognition of their necessarily close relationship that motivated the legislature to consolidate them in 2009. I have personally seen the benefits of their closer collaboration — for example, in getting the Trapelo Road reconstruction project moving: That road construction project required huge collaboration between MassHighway and the MBTA and, at the time, more than one manager commented on how beneficial it was to have everyone working together under the MassDOT umbrella.
I am equally puzzled by the task force suggestion to expand the MassDOT board. To the extent that the Secretary of Transportation wants to put additional expertise in place to assist her in directing the T and to the extent she wishes to add more voices to the process, she can easily do that — the creation of a new statutory entity seems entirely unnecessary and likely to diffuse responsibility.
If the MassDOT board resigns and gives the Governor control over the problem he already owns, I believe that the new control board and expanded MassDOT board are unnecessary. On the other hand, if they refuse to resign, then maybe giving the T a new board and diluting the existing MassDOT board’s authority by adding new members may be advisable. Perhaps that is the contingency that the task force was silently contemplating.
As I’ve argued on these pages, the MBTA is overextended — it is committed to too many expansion projects, it is committed to too many routes and it’s management team is spread too thin across many competing political demands. Giving the management team the strength that comes with direct accountability to the state’s chief executive is the best way to help it focus.
For a summary of the other recommendations of the task force, see Andrew Bettinelli’s post on this site.