Leadership — the scarce resource in the transportation system

Leadership is scarce in the transportation system in Massachusetts.

By that, I emphatically do not mean that the current leadership is weak.  On the contrary, I think Governor Baker has put in a superb bi-partisan team at the top of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and that there are many great civil servants in the ranks below them.

Rather, I mean that every management team has a finite capacity to plan and to solve problems and that the range of challenges facing MassDOT’s management team is very broad.  The issues that are breaking news — the uncertain future of the Green Line extension and the safety culture that allows a runaway train — are just a few among the many they face across the state.

As an advocate for my district, I add to their challenges by identifying new needs and problems.  They are in a superior position to evaluate how high my requests should sit on their priority list, but as a senator, I have found that I have enough power to distract them.  I have come to understand that I should use that power very carefully. I frequently communicate that they should feel free to say “no” or “not now” to me — either because of financial constraints or simply because of management bandwidth constraints.

Here are some of the major projects in my district that have demanded top management attention:

Across all of these projects, the top management of MassDOT has been responsive to me and to my colleagues in the House of Representatives who serve the same constituents.  And I am just one of 40 Senators.

As MassDOT leadership makes decisions about long-term priorities, I am heartened that they are taking a disciplined, standards-based approach, as opposed to merely responding to the loudest  advocates.  I will continue to advocate passionately, but respectfully, for the transportation needs of my district.

The MBTA and MassDOT boards jointly resolved as follows this afternoon (December 14, 2015):

WHEREAS the Green Line Extension is a long-standing commitment under the state’s Clean Air Act State Implementation Plan which has many transportation, economic development and environmental benefits not only for Cambridge, Somerville and Medford but for the greater Boston region and economy; and

WHEREAS the MBTA has a State of Good Repair backlog in excess of $7 billion and the core MBTA system is in need of many investments to address issues of maintenance, safety, accessibility and capacity;

WHEREAS, there are many unmet transportation capital needs throughout the Commonwealth; and

WHEREAS the Green Line Extension as procured and designed is not affordable or cost-effective for the MBTA given its other needs; and the existing Construction Manager/General Contractor contract documents do not provide sufficient cost reliability or risk allocation for the MBTA;

NOW THEREFORE it is the unanimous sense of both the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board and the Board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that until a cost-effective, affordable version of the project has been redesigned and reprocured, cancelling the project and investing the unspent Commonwealth share of the project funding on the core MBTA system will remain an option for both Boards.

AND FURTHER it is the unanimous sense of both the MBTA Fiscal and Management and Control Board and the Board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that the Green Line extension (GLX) project should proceed only subject to the following conditions:

* Value engineering and redesign will be undertaken to substantially reduce the cost of delivering the project while maintaining its core functionality;
* A reprocurement strategy will be developed and presented to both Boards that will ensure that a reliable cost estimate, viable cost reduction strategies and appropriate risk allocation will be incorporated into the GLX project going forward;
* New project management will be put in place both within the MBTA and for needed outside professional services contracts; and

Additional funding beyond that previously approved by the MassDOT Board for this project will need to be obtained from other sources such as the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the municipalities, landowners and developers benefitting from the project. Additional Commonwealth funding shall be limited to requirements set forth by federal requirements only.

In my view, this is the kind of tough priority decision that the leadership team needs to make to ration both its financial resources and its management resources.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

24 replies on “Leadership — the scarce resource in the transportation system”

  1. There is an issue here around climate change and storm surges. From what I understand there is a pretty good chance — by ‘pretty good’ I mean about 50% — that at some point over the next decade downtown Boston will be flooded. The T will be drowned. It will take days to pump it out, after which some fraction of the T structure will need to be rebuilt. I hate thinking about how Boston would deal with not having a T for two weeks or so. Maybe nothing can be done but I would love to know the T is thinking about this.

    1. This is something very much on my mind — I been following interagency progress on modeling these exposures and pushing for a more unified approach. I think that within the next 12 months, we will have a better handle on these risks and can begin to plan for the necessary defensive investments.

      Obviously, this will only add to the planning burden for MassDOT’s management team and will further strain our capital budget.

  2. Good afternoon Senator,

    Very well written and thoughtful email on state of transportation. Something the mbta should also focus on is their customer service skills. Many of the drivers are rude and contribute to a hostile ‘us against them’ environment. I don’t know if this comes from the top or is just built into their culture, but it certainly exists. To work on customer service just by being polite and changing the tone in their voice wouldn’t cost a penny. This past fall I witnessed an mbta bus driver cuss at a passenger out loud while children were being transported to get to school.

    Long term I really think the whole subway system needs to be changed and redone completely. During baseball season for passengers waiting for the green line to go outbound on the B, C, or D lines, they have to wait at least 40 minutes as all the subway cars are filled with people like sardines in a box. Most of the subways come with two cars, sometimes 3, because the system is way too small and out of date. Ultimately, for the long haul by changing the subway system, would need to change the stops, make the stations much larger to accommodate 8-10 car subways like Washington DC and NYC and the Path train in Jersey. We know the mbta is strapped financially. However at some point this change will have to come.

    Here is an article which also helps show some of the frustration of riders…http://www.bostonherald.com/news/local_coverage/2015/12/rankings_dont_lie_red_line_riders_seeing_red

    1. Thanks, Tom. Customer service is definitely a priority for management.

      Agreed re the green line — we currently only support 2 car trains on the green line; only a few 3 car trains can run without blowing the power capacity. We could get to 3 car trains on the green line for a few hundred million. This is a huge improvement opportunity that I hope we will eventually take — in my view, much more valuable than the green line extension.

  3. Hi Senator Will, As usual I agree with your positions. I wish you could get more media attention, as that helps so much.

    There is a total leadership void in all aspects of this country, its politics, business, and general workers. It is very sad, and I think it somewhat explains Donald Trump’s continuing popilarity as a collective voice of frustration and outrage.

    This is a rough Christmas season as my sister Linda Walczak continues to deteriorate with cancer, while my 87 yo old mother is also failing.

    I still wish you and yours the best of the holiday seasn and new year of another decade. will johnson, Fenway

  4. Hi Will,
    Thank you for your continuing interest in the T, especially the buses. Yesterday I had the following experience after a concert at MIT when I wanted to take the Dudley bus (No. 1) to Harvard to get the #73 home. I got to the stop at about 5:50 and found about 7 people waiting. A packed bus arrived; the doors opened to allow a few passengers to exit, but the driver told those of us trying to enter at the front that we could not because it was too crowded. A middle-aged lady in slightly accented English protested (politely but firmly) to the driver on behalf of herself an an elderly woman companion: “But we have been here since 5:00! Three buses have passed us. You must let us on.” Whereupon the driver called out to passengers: “I need a seat for a senior citizen!” Some room appeared, the lady and her companion boarded, and I and others waiting took the opportunity to do the same, cramming ourselves in (one man ahead of the yellow line, where passengers are not supposed to be). The driver, a fairly young woman became friendly and philosophical. She began lamenting the lack of manners of the young. As I was now very close to the protesting lady, she said to me, “People here are too passive!” “Where are you from?,” I replied. “Switzerland,” she said, “people would not tolerate this in Switzerland.” (It’s been a while since I have visited Switzerland and traveled on its city trams, but I was inclined to believe her.) She’s right — I have been silently tolerating “missed trips,” buses very late with no explanation or apology, Green Line trains mysteriously “held” at the station (although last week our train was held at Park Street because a group of young people on it were fighting among themselves), and so on without complaint. My strategy has been, when I need to be somewhere, to leave so early that these things can happen and I can still reach my destination; this usually but not always succeeds. But the Swiss lady is right: I need to protest more. And so do we all. (Happily, as a good Democrat, I am not opposed to taxes; the driver, the Swiss lady, and I all agreed the T is a public service that should not be expected to earn a profit or even pay for itself.)

    1. Yes to the philosophy. For what it’s worth, the Dudley bus is one of the bus lines most in need of improvement — the MBTA’s bus operations people are very conscious of the problem and working on technology to better control the bunching of service.

  5. We need to rethink the infrastructure. First of all the “Clean Air Act State Implementation Plan” needs to be revisited it is a quarter century old and does not address today’s suburb to suburb commuting patterns and needs. The MBTA is a hub and spoke system which is Boston centric and does not serve those who have other destinations. Maybe a circumferential transit way connecting the spokes to circulate ridership.

  6. Will, thank you for the updates. Besides the fact that we have a Republican governor, I do not understand why additional alternative revenue sources are not being considered. For example, requiring automobile commuters to pay for the congestion they produce and the infrastructure that has until now been provided for free (i.e. I-93 and I-95.) This sense that we have limited resources is, I suspect, a political problem more than lack of solutions. I would like to see us push the envelope more when it comes to re-imagining the transportation system. The problems are political, and we need champions like you to redefine the possible. There are lots of planners who can give you technical solutions, but our biggest challenge is political.

    1. I do support expansion of tolling to 93/95 and also congestion pricing. However, it is, as you say, a huge political challenge to raise taxes or tolls. It’s easy for me to support coming from an urban district where people drive less and use public transit more. The challenge is to persuade legislators from districts that more dependent on automobile transportation.

  7. Just to add another apple to the pie, the Alewife Station Garage has been “under construction” for upwards of 2 years, but there is no observable construction – just about 1/3 to 1/2 of the garage is unavailable for parking.

    I’ve never heard or read anything about this situation.

    1. I second your opinion..
      I was so annoyed getting in and out of Alewife garage with spaces rounded up by picket fence but nothing really happens there.

      It looks like another scam for our tax money.

    2. I have learned that the “construction” is not construction in the ordinary sense — there is no remodeling or new construction. Rather the work is being done to make sure of the structural soundness of the building and thus the work moves from place to place as needed, but there is really no visual evidence. The garage spaces are used as a staging area for the equipment. We believe the work is scheduled to be completed this spring.

      Here are the items being covered, from the Project Notice.

      “The essential repairs for the Alewife Parking Garage include concrete repairs to the parking garage precast concrete double tees, concrete columns and concrete beams, removing and replacing expansion joints, re-caulking joints, replacing damaged skylight panels, repairs to damaged drain pipes, replacing scupper grates and floor plates, and performing a CCTV inspection of the existing drainage system.”

      1. Dear Barbara,

        Happy new year!

        Thanks so much for looking into this. Can you also help to get a detailed list of work performed, hours billed and bill of materials?

        I hope I am not asking too much. And I am offering my time to work with you to find out what is happening there.

        If I am about to hire someone to do a job, the above three will be the first thing I would ask before the project is assigned ( an estimate) and after it is all finished ( an actual)

        Also, I am still scratching my head my such a repair work would take YEARS to complete.

        With all my respect to hard working people like you and Senator, I am still not sure what is going on with MBTA. That is why I am asking for further proof of what is going on.

        thanks again!

  8. Good work, Senator.

    We need someone like you to press for leadership and efficiency.

    Just want to state one fact:

    It took 15 years and $ 14.6 billion dollars for the state of Massachusetts to complete the big dig project
    ( a 7 miles tunnel)

    While it took 5 years and $3.68 billion dollars for China to build a railroad to Tibet. (1,215 miles)

    Let’s forget about building a railroad cross the mountains and frozen ground in Tibet. And assuming their environment is equivalent as Boston.
    (building a tunnel has it’s own difficulties, I must admit that. But it is nothing compared to the construction of railroad across the mountains and valleys to Tibet at an elevation of 16,000 feet)

    On a per mile basis, we are 688 times more costly than China. On a construction time basis, we are at a 520 times overrun.

    We could blame Chinese for their corruption, monarchy and slavery. But at the end of the day, they beat us by half a thousand times.

    Efficiency and leadership, which was impossible under the notorious ex-general manager Beverly Scott (who spend a record setting of time taking vacations and travelling to world class conferences in luxury destinations, while leaving the T deteriorating to an unsustainable level).

    And now it is time for us tax payers to press for it, under the leadership of Senator Brownsberger.

  9. Will, not sure if this hit your radar today, but Cambridge just announced their second year’s results for participatory budgeting, and one of the winners was signal priority for the #1 bus in Cambridge. (See http://pb.cambridgema.gov/1bus )

    We discussed this at work (in Kendall Square), this was generally agreed to be one of the higher bang-for-buck projects on the list. The consensus (and I agreed) was that the bicycle improvements were more uncertain in their likelihood of success.

    I’d like us to spend more generously, but failing that, we should be looking out for these high payoff opportunities. Signal priority for buses in general sounds like a good idea for any of the busy suburban routes (71, 73, 77, 79, 87 all come to mind). We need to be sure that we don’t drop the ball on clearing snow from the path to Alewife from Belmont, so that people who walk it and bike it (there are many now) are not forced to find some other way to Alewife next time it snows.

    And I would very much like to see congestion charges; surely our business-oriented governor can appreciate the efficiency of a market-based solution, and I certainly hope he recognizes the value of mass transit to the Boston Metro area (any congestion charge should subsidize alternatives — that would be transit first and foremost, and also better support for short-haul biking close in, where the traffic is worst).

    PS, also for your radar, the Ames Street Residences in Cambridge — coming soon, will add 280 apartments to Kendall Square, plan is for only 0.5 car parking per unit and 1.1 bicycle, so I anticipate interesting times.

    1. Thanks, David.

      I’m an enthusiast of TSP — also pushing it on the B, C and E branches of the Green Line that have to work with crossings. The information systems are getting good enough to make progress on it there too.

      Also, big believer in congestion charges. Spread the time of commuting further at least and reduce congestion that way, even if we aren’t really offering more transit in the short run.

  10. Will,

    Today WCVB is reporting that rail employee hourly pay at the T is 30% above the national average and bus employee hourly pay is 50% above average.

    WCBV highlighted an example of a rail maintenance employee who made $315,000 (yes, $315k – not a typo), including 2,600 hours (!) of overtime pay. Something is seriously wrong when it’s possible for a T rail maintenance worker to be paid twice the average MA primary care physician salary. (Never mind how anyone could possible earn a legitimate 2,600 hours of overtime.)

    In addition to a lack of leadership capacity at the T there is a legacy of an astonishing lack of fiscal oversight and fudiciary responsibility. How else are we to explain such incredible mismanagement of public funds and the recent bombshell that the green line extension is projected to run $1B+ over budget?

    This waste of precious public resources is not a simple cost control failure. It is flatly outrageous, inexcusable, and perhaps (or probably) criminal. It really angers me to see how damaged our public transportation system has become.

    Our critical and vital public transportation system is in crisis due to years of incompetence, corruption, and negect. This has to be fixed. MA cannot afford a dysfunctional system and the continuation of the status quo. We need more and better public transportation. I don’t see how we can achieve that with our system mismanaged and in shambles like this.

    Fixing the T must go beyond making hard decisions about current priorities.

    How can we ensure that costs will be managed effectively?

    How do we eliminate grotesque inefficiencies like those highlighted above?

    How can we attract capable leadership and give them the necessary controls and oversight (and once those exist, the funding) to secure a vital and thriving transit future for the commonwealth?

    How do we build and sustain the progress achieved recently to expose and honestly face the challenges at the T, and continue to build leadership and management capability that is up to the task of meeting those challenges, not just this year, but for the years and decades to come?

    I wish I had ready answers for these questions. I wish I had a game plan that could be put into action immediately and that, if followed, would lead to a bright future for the T. Unfortunately I know of no silver bullets to solve this crisis. I know these questions are on your mind and on the minds of many in the commonwealth.

    I hate to see the extension of the Green Line put on hold again but I think I agree that it’s the most rational action to take right now to allow an opportunity to correct mistakes made in the existing approach in order to secure it for the long term.

    I am interested in hearing your thoughts on how to create a sustainable management culture and oversight of the T for the long term and actions being taken now to make it happen.


    1. Thanks, Scott. Actually, I think we have put in place the right structure to address these fiscal concerns.

      In large part, the reason these concerns are surfacing right now is because of the work of the new board we created and the transparency that goes along with having a strong and visible management board.

      Just one word of caution in reacting to these numbers, do remember that the most recent year includes last winter’s blizzards. There were a lot of people who worked sick hours trying to get things running again. Many more hours than they wanted to work.

    2. Scott, I totally agree with you that efficiency and accountability is more important than anything else with MBTA.

      The criminals must be held responsible, including ex-general manager Beverly Scott.

  11. it is penny wise and pound foolish not to fund fully the Green Line extension is funded fully and to provide the T with adequate capital funds to maintain and expand the Red and Green Line rolling stcok. The area’s economy depends upon the public transit infrastructire and current growth cannot be mainatined without maintaining and expanding the public transit infrastructure.
    This is not to reward the incompetence of T management — which poses a separate and independent problem that also needs to be addressed. But T management problems must not be an excuse not to do what we must.
    It is timne overdue for someone in the State House to raise the clarion call to relieve the T of its debt burden and to fund the T properly, even if it means raising taxes, which it will. Can you be that voice?

    1. I am a voice calling both for full funding and for good focus and accountability. The thrust of my comment here is that money, scarce as it is, is not the scarcest resource. Rather, the scarce resource is management bandwidth.

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