THE SEARCH for a new MBTA general manager and all the hype around it is at best a distraction and, at worst, obscures the difficult work needed to turn around the system. Riders, and especially low-income riders, are bearing the brunt of a system in free fall and their safety and the restoration of pre-pandemic service should be the Healey administration’s chief priority. There is no single person who can turn the T around. We should be past the “great man” theory.
The system needs strong leadership to be sure, but what it needs most is sustainable long-term funding for both capital and operations, new employees to operate buses and rapid transit vehicles, and a vision. We at TransitMatters strongly believe the Healey administration should pause the search for a new GM for at least a year until it can get the agency on sound footing.
If the Healey administration wants to make a clean break with the Baker era, it should start by asking for the resignation of all Baker appointees to the board. The board reform has been an unequivocal failure. The lack of engagement around hiring, the uncritical meetings, and the transfer of operating funds to capital projects (a step the Federal Transit Administration rebuked in their scathing assessment of the T) show that the current appointees have not provided the level of oversight the agency needs.
Healey’s administration should also break with the Baker administration’s stingy fare policy that made the MBTA one of the few large agencies not to offer any sort of fare holiday or encouragement to welcome back riders. The stinginess played a part in the slow walking of a low-income fare and the failure to update the T’s pass structure to better suit current commuting and travel patterns. None of these things require a new general manager.
In fact, the obsessive focus on a new general manager at a time when the agency is a national pariah could be actively harmful. Add in a six to nine-month teething period and you have a recipe for stasis and further dysfunction. The MBTA desperately needs to go to the negotiating table with its labor partners to win a higher starting wage and better working conditions for new operators. Delaying this important step to find a new general manager will not help a single rider. Jeff Gonnevile is a general manager who has the support of many front-line workers and has already shown decisive and transparent leadership.
The administration needs to show that fixing the T is a priority. It needs to outline a vision that shows that the MBTA is an essential part of the Commonwealth’s future. This is how you attract top talent to the MBTA. The Legislature has a role to play, too. The T is the only large agency with no dedicated source for capital funding. The T will have just one-third of the current capital budget available past fiscal year 2025. This is because the Legislature has failed to provide a sustainable long-term funding source for the T’s needed modernization, repair, and expansion efforts. And the looming operating budget shortfall ought to be addressed permanently and structurally this year, but again there’s been no legislative or executive branch action on this matter.
The abysmal service the T has provided over the past two years has suppressed ridership, which again means that the T needs more support not a plan for “managed decline.” We implore the Healey administration to direct its attention to working with the Legislature to ensure that funding is not a barrier to the very goals the governor set out on the campaign trail.
Riders deserve a usable, safe, reliable system. A new GM will not magically restore any bus and subway trips, fix any slow zones, decarbonize our buses or trains, or make any meaningful difference to riders’ lives. Replace the board members with actively involved people who have first-hand experience with the system and who will hold the T accountable. Provide the interim general manager with the resources he needs to address the myriad of issues facing the agency and prioritize staffing the front-line roles that keep our system moving.
Jarred Johnson is the executive director of TransitMatters.