THERE IS A VIEW among many in and out of the transit advocacy world – a misguided view in my opinion – that it should be a top priority for the Healey administration to find a new general manager for the MBTA.
While I understand the appeal of pushing a restart button on the T as a way to re-energize the system, I have come to believe that we should reorder the steps for building a stronger transit authority.
As matters of priority before a new GM is hired, the governor and the Legislature should make changes to the membership of the MBTA Board (including boosting municipal participation), focus on attracting essential personnel such as bus drivers and dispatchers, and direct new funding to the T. These steps would allow a future general manager to be successful in the GM role.
Finding the right person to run the MBTA is a very challenging task. Finding a highly qualified and inspirational leader may well not be on offer at this moment in time. Let’s be candid with one another: the MBTA is in a uniquely difficult situation because it is struggling under a federal safety receivership, severely short-staffed, and is facing a massive operating budget deficit with serious state-of-good-repair backlogs. This is an agency that will take much time to fix, requiring net new revenue (particularly on the operating side of the budget) and some measure of risk-taking to recover rider confidence.
Here is the harsh reality: anyone, even the best possible person out there, will fail if we don’t pay attention first to the looming fiscal crisis, the chronic workforce shortages that cannot be fixed simply with money, and the need to beef up project management and procurement capacity.
These are mission critical issues and positions; I believe they are more important to focus on now than who becomes the next GM. If we fail to address these urgently, no person, not even the fictional Gordon Gekko, or the highly regarded (and real) Andy Byford, can turn things around at the T in the ways we all would like to see.
In the meantime, the MBTA is very well led by the current Interim general manager. We have, in Jeff Gonneville, a seasoned professional who is highly regarded within the organization and among his peers in the industry. There is no reason to rush a selection of a new GM when the person holding the position now is a very strong choice.
There are many more urgent personnel issues to address than finding a new GM.
First, the T is about to lose the person who was critical to the success of the Green Line extension project, John Dalton. Finding and retaining highly qualified project managers is essential to the future of the T.
Second, the CRRC debacle is a failure of procurement as much as it is anything else. Staffing up high quality procurement capacity at the T is mission critical at a time when the T needs to undertake the transition to electric bus and electric regional rail.
Third, the severe shortages of bus drivers, subway operators, and dispatchers is an unfortunate outcome of the pandemic that is plaguing transit agencies across the nation. The MBTA is not exempt from this crisis, which has a direct, negative impact on service quality and service delivery.
Money alone is not the answer, as we have seen how hiring bonuses and other incentives are no longer able to attract the number of employees the T needs. A number of actions need to take place, including changing working conditions to permit full-time employment of new hires and rethinking archaic pre-pandemic scheduling practices that may have worked in the 1980s but do not reflect the realities of today’s prospective employee pool.
A new GM cannot work miracles. These issues need to be fixed first.
The governor and Legislature can fix the looming operating budget crisis by directing net new revenue to the T. I have proposed that the Legislature shift the costs of paratransit and debt service from the T (and the statewide regional transit authorities) to the Commonwealth, as doing this will free up significant amounts of operating budget cash that the agencies can then use to hire the qualified team they need to deliver services.
Fix this problem first, then perhaps the role of GM will be more attractive to highly qualified candidates, and it will allow the next GM to actually be successful in reaching our expected goals.
At a time when the T is very well led by its interim general manager, it strikes me that we need to relax our focus on hiring a new GM and shift our focus to the places that really matter in the short-mid-term.
Unless the Legislature and the new administration deal with and begin to resolve the issues I have identified here, hiring a new GM simply will not matter as much as some people think it will. I believe transit riders, advocates and others will support and applaud a redirection by the new administration. We want them to succeed and are prepared to have their backs in the cause of a better transit system.
James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the board of TransitMatters.