Accountability for the MBTA

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

17 replies on “Accountability for the MBTA”

  1. I also hope the MBTA board will accept responsibility for its lack of supervision, and the members will withdraw. If that does not happen, it looks like the Legislature needs to step in, and reset the MBTA governance structure.

    Thanks, Will, for speaking up on the merits of each issue – pushing back on Charlie Baker when needed, and supporting him when it makes sense.

    There’s a time for politics, and a time for checking politics at the door and solving people’s problems. And the MBTA, right now, is a problem that needs solving.

  2. “Greater accountability” is one of those trendy terms that has little meaning in the real world. If they just put competent people in leadership positions, that’s all we need. I was shocked to see that the MBTA never searched out best practices in their operations. A consulting firm working for just a few weeks identified substantive weaknesses relative to other systems. Is that an accountability issue or a leadership issue?

    If the MassDOT board are are the current”leaders” they should resign, and be replaced by people who will lead with competence.

  3. I think that there is a tremendous amount of not invented here at the T. The T management & the state needs to look beyond the USA to Israel, to England and Canada to find and adopt better systems and practices. Many practices and systems in the USA are not very good compared to what is being done internationally. If the state is really interested in best practices it needs to look around the world to learn how to do better.

    In Israel, Tel Aviv has adopted App based fare collection, and transit parking garage management, eliminating capital expense and improving cash collection. Canada handles snow better than we do.

    I think that both the Management and the workforce at the T are bureaucratic and stuck with very poor practices.

    I also think that many parts of the T do very good work despite the short comings of the poor practices.

    And then there are the games that get played to manage pensions, health care or other idiot problems that get news coverage that destroy trust in both the workforce and management that they can perform this vital service well and at reasonable cost.

  4. AGREE with your analysis regarding the MBTA problems, and the Commission’s recommendations.

  5. I am encouraged to see that the systemic problems at the MBTA are finally getting the attention it deserves after decades of neglect and dismal service. The economy of Greater Boston and Massachusetts literally depends on a world class efficient and reliable transportation system.

    The cost to fix this is going to be huge. An important piece of this is going to be for the BRA to start requiring developers to pay money to improve T stations before they are allowed to build, since their projects benefit from access to public transportation. The cost burden should be shared and not thrown on the shoulders of riders. Without reliable public transportation for their workers, businesses will not continue to move into the region.

    1. Excellent point. The T is a public utility that benefits everyone, directly or indirectly, in one way or another, asd should be supported in the broadest way.

    2. Excellent point, Tony. The T is a public utility that benefits everyone, directly or indirectly, in one way or another, and should be supported in the broadest way.

  6. I am concerned that so far the solution is focused on the “changing of the guard” on the board. The structure is behind the times and somewhat resembles the old Soviet Union with it’s Boston centralism. Boston has a permanent seat on the MPO. there are other communities that rotate out. Maybe Boston should be rotated out.

  7. Thanks for keeping on track. I hope the recommendations will be implemented and that the focus on T improvement will remain constant, even when the T is not front page news.

  8. No accountability for over expansion of the area! It is not the (T)’s fault! BU has and still does ANYTHING to acquire land and intimate residents! Any excuse to raise the fair for passengers! Move stops so that they all line up with BU buildings! Eliminate stops so that BU students can get to class faster to the demise of local residents! If you cannot do anything for a very large building then who can you do anything positive for? Oh yeah how much are the bribes these days? Put West End at Agganis Way!

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