THE MBTA’s FISCAL AND MANAGEMENT CONTROL BOARD is halfway through its five-year term, which seems like a good time to review its progress so far.
The law creating the control board said the five-member group was needed to ensure that the transit authority embraces transparency and accountability, strives for organizational and fiscal stability, and earns the trust of the public.
The MBTA has made progress on all these fronts, and the control board deserves a lot of the credit. The board has taken tough votes on the Green Line extension, higher fares, and privatization initiatives. It has poked and prodded at MBTA projects and proposals, forcing T managers to defend their approaches. It has listened to countless hours of testimony from members of the public and ordered the T to livestream its meetings.
James Aloisi, the former transportation secretary and board member of TransitMatters, opposed the creation of the control board as an unnecessary layer of added bureaucracy. Now he says he is a big fan of the board even though he doesn’t agree with every decision it has taken.
“They have helped guide the GLX project toward the right path forward. They are pretty open and transparent, and are now livestreaming meetings to enhance that,” said Aloisi. “What makes the FMCB work as well as it does is the quality of the appointments that Gov. Charlie Baker made – it may be the best publicly appointed board I’ve seen in the world of Massachusetts transportation, and that includes the boards I served on before and during my tenure as transportation secretary.”
Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said he was also a skeptic of the need for a control board. But he says the board’s performance has proven him wrong. He said the board members have dug into the details of transportation, put the agency on sounder financial footing, and listened to what outsiders have to say about the T. “They’re not thanked enough,” Dempsey said.
The five members of the control board are each very different. Joseph Aiello, the chairman, is very good at keeping an eye both on details and the big picture. Brian Shortsleeve, who has come over from T management, remains a relentless force for change. Steven Poftak keeps an eye on the financial bottom line. Monica Tibbits-Nutt is often hard to read, but she is a forceful advocate for better data, designated bus lanes, and transparency. Brian Lang is the non-policy-wonk of the group, and his refreshingly blunt approach often finds a way to cut to the heart of a matter.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is not a member of the board, but she acts like one. She is careful not to overstep her authority, but she participates actively in board discussions right up until the vote. It’s an odd arrangement, and one that will probably be resolved once a new system for T oversight is developed. The bet here is that the transportation secretary will be a member of any future oversight board, just as the secretary is the chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Despite their different personalities and interests, the five members of the control board almost always vote in lockstep. Their most serious split so far came during the debate over whether the T should accept alcohol advertising, which was banned in 2012. Shortsleeve, Poftak, and Tibbits-Nutt voted in favor of accepting the ads, while Aiello and Lang joined together in opposition.
On paper, the control board has enormous power. But the board is very careful about how it wields that power. The tone of meetings is collegial, with board members offering help and guidance to T staff instead of issuing orders. Even when the T screws up, as it did with the contract for installing giant WiFi towers along the commuter rail, agency employees aren’t called on the carpet. The board listened to the public outcry, and then responded by basically starting the contracting process over from scratch.
Meetings are heavily scripted affairs, with T staff making presentations and the board asking questions here and there. Discussions rarely veer off-script, even if something comes up that would normally attract an oversight board’s interest. For example, the MBTA’s director of parking recently resigned (involuntarily, he said) and on his way out the door dropped a 30-page statement detailing instances of what he believed was poor oversight of the T’s parking lot operator. The surprise resignation after just a year on the job and the 30-page statement weren’t reported to the board; they surfaced in the press.
At the control board meeting following the news about the parking director, no one asked questions about what happened, not even a request for an update at a future meeting. That incident, and others like it over the past two-and-half years, gives one the feeling that a lot of the real action at the Fiscal and Management Control Board takes place behind the scenes, out of sight from the public.
The board’s structure may have something to do with the way it operates. Unlike the members of the Gaming Commission and the Cannabis Control Commission, who each earn six-figure salaries, the five members of the control board are all essentially volunteers. They receive no pay and all of them have other jobs. The arrangement means board members can only devote so much time to T business. It may force them to act more like a corporate board that sets broad policy while staying out of day-to-day matters.
Dempsey, of Transportation for Massachusetts, said he would put two items on the board’s to-do list. First, he said, the board needs to address how the T will be governed once the control board’s mandate elapses. Second, the board needs to begin addressing whether the T can continue to operate with the revenue sources it currently has or whether more revenue will be needed in the future to continue the progress that has been made over the past couple years.
“It will probably need some new revenue, and the FMCB should address that,” he said.