“THE MBTA NEEDS to be put out of its misery.” That’s the diagnosis from Beverly Scott, the former general manager of the MBTA. The MBTA doesn’t need a fiscal and management control board or an expanded MassDOT board, she says. What the MBTA needs is a state takeover.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Tuesday that Gov. Charlie Baker’s special MBTA panel supported intervention over getting rid of the T. But for Scott, folding the MBTA into MassDOT would mean that the governor would be in control and accountable for the agency.
Most MBTA riders, if they recognize Scott at all, remember her as the woman scorned during the winter of 2015. During her tell-it-like-it-is February press conference, she hit back at Baker’s criticism of the MBTA’s inability to cope with what a recent Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency report called “unprecedented, unrelenting and devastating” winter weather. “This ain’t this woman first rodeo,” Scott told reporters during an animated session in which she held forth with no-holds-barred flourish for nearly half an hour. She resigned the following day.
A 40-year transportation veteran, Scott headed the Atlanta, Sacramento, and Rhode Island transit agencies and worked in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC, Dallas, and Houston. She thought that Atlanta would be her last big city transit job; she intended to devote herself after that to her dream of a program to groom the next generation of transportation workers and leaders.
But when former governor Deval Patrick called in 2012, the Cleveland native took the MBTA top job in what she calls a “Jerry Maguire moment” (“You had me at hello”) because of his commitment to reforms in transportation and education. Scott said that she never intended to hang around very long after Patrick left the Corner Office in early January. But she hadn’t intended to leave so soon either.
MBTA union members heaped praise on the no-nonsense Scott at a recent transportation oversight committee hearing. “Beverly was heroic,” said one man. “She jumped on a grenade.” “Who is going to do a better job than that?” said another.
CommonWealth tracked down Scott to get her perspective on how to get control of the bucking bronco that is the MBTA, how the agency’s culture contributed to the system’s winter collapse, and her view of the MBTA special panel’s recommendations.
What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
You met with Gov. Baker’s special MBTA panel: What did you tell them?
You can’t get much more serious than your governance. I told the group, to some extent the T needs to be put out of its misery. The notion that the T is a quasi-public authority and that, as a quasi-public, it somehow controls all of its own strategic thinking and doing, which is typically normal, is really not the case with the T. Too many times what we are doing is we are continuing to operate these agencies using institutional frameworks that are outdated and outmoded to do 21st century work. Just put it under MassDOT. It can be a state agency. You need to be able to say that the buck stops somewhere. If I want to put my hand around your throat and choke you, who do I go to?
There are only four statewide [transit] agencies in the country: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware and Maryland. The MBTA comes as close to being statewide as you can get. The only thing that I think has stopped a state takeover is that nobody wants to take on the MBTA’s debt or the pension obligations.
What about the notion of control? The governor says he wants a chief administrative officer and a control board to ride herd on issues like high absenteeism and capital spending.
While excessive absenteeism is definitely a longstanding problem at the T and many other transit systems—and, an issue which I have put quite a bit of work into addressing— the 57 number [average number of days that an MBTA employee misses annually, according to the recent special commission report] is grossly overstated.
The other one that sticks out for me is the $2.2 billion in unspent capital dollars. I will be the first to say that while the T has significantly improved its project delivery, there is still more to be done. But the idea that there is $2.2 billion budgeted, approved, and just sitting around in the agency’s coffers not being used is not the case. So there is some mixing of concepts going on – that’s where additional context and background would have been helpful. Some of the other points—the unsustainability of the T’s finances, the T’s low fares compared to other transit systems–are absolutely accurate, but also not new news.
So what’s my point? If the special panel report is supposed to be the document that makes the case that Rome is burning down, so we need to call in the paratroopers and take the hill, I don’t believe it does that. The report does not tread new ground, but it is useful in focusing attention in some very important areas.
I am not going to quibble about the choice of metrics and comparisons. Suffice to say, there are others that could just as reasonably have been selected that would not have painted as dire a picture. I will note that the lack of context and factual support for some numbers is problematic. I tell people all the time, PowerPoints? I need to see sentences, paragraphs, and data sets.
Why is there high absenteeism at transit agencies?
There are a numbers of reasons for it. It is not a really family friendly workplace.
Should management go to the unions about these issues?
That’s not the union’s responsibility, that’s management’s responsibility to manage it. It takes policies, procedures, systems, training, and discipline. I haven’t seen anywhere where you can just bludgeon people with it. The first report I saw on absenteeism, this was when I was in California, was from the MBTA itself almost 15 years ago. We are still having the same conversation.
If you’ve got 6,000 people and you are the supervisor out in a depot, if you can’t pull up the data, the manager has no way of knowing what the worker’s record is. People tell you what you can say, what you can’t say. You better not violate people’s medical privacy. You can’t just get supervisors out there violating people’s rights, asking what illness do you have.
The T doesn’t have coherent policies and procedures on absenteeism?
You can put the blame wherever you want. You’ve got to work with the employees, not to roll over, but you need to be able to work with employees as well as with labor unions.
Did you work on absenteeism?
I absolutely focused on it. So now there are systems.
When you came in you did not find these systems?
What struck you about MBTA when you took the helm?
Here’s the thing with the T: It’s got all this complexity, it’s a great system. People would die to be able to have a system like this. But at the same time, it also has all the problems that you have with the big, older systems. This is not just a T issue. The United States has a D+ overall in infrastructure, transportation being only one of the critical sectors. The issues we are seeing here in infrastructure are just rampant throughout the transportation sector.
What is an equally critical problem is a workforce problem. If we are truly going to have visions of leading the nation in transportation excellence that means we have to be prepared to make investments in the physical assets and we better doggone be prepared to make those same investments on the people side of the house.
What is it about the workforce that has to change?
There is still a legacy of pride in serving this community that remains very strong among many T employees. They need to be motivated and inspired to excel. But, the T is extremely insular—which also makes it very change resistant. To change that culture is going to take strong and certain leadership that has skin in the game and leads by example.
When you take this alarming numbers of retirements, you have aging on top of that fact. It’s a crisis in terms of highly-skilled positions. I’m not talking about CEOs. You can hire a CEO fast. It’s not just the managers. It’s the rank and file, the people who are out there on the line making sure that these services, these signals, these cables, these millions of pieces that move are being worked on. You just don’t go hire these people off the street. All of the old feeder systems that people used to have from the defense industry, the vocational, technical programs, apprenticeship programs and those kinds of things are almost lost, if you will.
Many people wouldn’t come up here, because the compensation levels at the management levels are really not great, particularly for your highly skilled, technical specialties and your more senior level people. The MBTA has very good unionized wage rates. But for managers, the MBTA is not competitive.
The thing that was always great here was the “platinum pension.” Everybody knew that you couldn’t get people to leave the T. The MBTA did not have the competitiveness on the salary side, they had those great benefits. When you had 23 and out, you had people who were in their 40s that were retiring, leaving with very good retirement packages and then doing second careers. All of that went away with transportation reform.
Are there redundancies in the workforce?
You have an organization that has such a discontinuity in top management. Every CEO and secretary brings in his or her own thoughts about how he or she would organize; how they would reorganize; what areas would report to what areas. I didn’t find that the T is what you would call a bloated organization. What is absolutely glaringly missing has been a basic focus of strengthening the workforce, not the just the pipeline, but the training and the development of the individuals who are within the organization.
Let’s put that in the context of this past winter: Would more training, would more conversation…
[Interrupts] To try to suggest that dealing with a catastrophic, once a lifetime event, which were basically four events, to suggest that T itself was this big, deficient organization that was lumbering and didn’t know how to function, I don’t attribute that to they were bloated or not working or inefficient or ineffective! Was it absolutely staggering? Yes, it certainly was!
This year’s extreme weather conditions were unprecedented – our industry peer review group couldn’t document another like it in North America. If our transit system had been brand new, we would not have been able to safely and reliably continue full operations. However, if the T had been appropriately modernized, well maintained and kept itself up to date with the latest industry lessons learned and best practices through the years, we would have been in a much better position to withstand this winter’s extreme weather and rebound much more quickly.
You mentioned training. Should the MBTA have known that there are new deicing products out there, for example?
[Shouts] But that’s part of the insularity. This is what I am telling you. I had people on the phone on the weekend [during the winter] from Toronto, New York. Toronto has some of the best customized equipment. The T is doggone sturdy. But the T is also an organization that historically has a conversation with itself. It’s a heckuva conversation and it’s rich. But you cannot learn that way. The way that you wind up becoming smart, good, and stay on top of it is, you cannot just have a conversation with yourself. You need to be able to know, who are my counterparts—the Chicagos the Torontos, the Philadelphias, the New Yorks, the Jerseys. They’ve got the same kind of weather. They’ve got the same kind of complexity of systems. They’ve got some of the same types of equipment. You need to be talking and learning.
Yet you have been criticized for spending, going on trips.
Let me tell you, I make not an apology in the world. Yes, I know this industry and I know it well. I could get on the telephone, call New York, ask them, and get [snow removal] equipment that stayed here with the people to do it that we needed and could not have created if we wanted to for two, three weeks. And I make not a damn apology for it. As far as mutual aid, it’s not that people would not have wanted to [help], but things happen as much because of trusted relationships. The thing that was abundantly clear was that the T has not invested in even the basic equipment [to address heavy snowfalls].
I am not a crooked person. I am not a stupid person. I have enjoyed and respect public service, so I am never a lavish person. Bev ain’t going on no junkets! If I wanted to go somewhere and do whatever, believe me, I will pay for it myself. I was here for two years. I never had one Freedom of Information Act request until the end of December. Now I am up to about 20.
When I got the first FOIA reference to travel, I said to my staff, I want to show it all to them and don’t go through this whole thing of what they have to pay for and what they don’t have to pay for. Everyone said there is a process we go through in terms of FOIA. Take the trips for what they are. Yes, I am active in associations. I go to the Federal Railroad Administration. I go to the US Department of Homeland Security. I go to Congress. I’m not apologizing. It is what is.
Why can’t the MBTA get the word out if there are people waiting on a platform for a delayed train or for shuttle buses if subway service gets interrupted. Not just during snow storms, but during any emergency?
If I had to tell you the biggest area where the T needed to improve at every single level, it is the issue of communication. I don’t want that to be misread as they lack a customer focus. But the MBTA is very operationally oriented.
Which means what exactly?
The T needs to start thinking about it from the perspective of the customer. We know what we are looking at in the operations control center. For the person who is out there on the platform or at the bus stop or whatever, how does my customer know what is happening? Notwithstanding the snow, this is something that the MBTA as an organization has really not been great at. But now having said that, bear in mind all of the improvements that were made. It was only with the Patrick administration that you started seeing all this in terms of the tracking systems and putting the real time information out. It is that adequate? No, it isn’t. Do we need to more? We most certainly do.
Why doesn’t the MBTA have an adequate asset management database?
[Exasperated]The amount of work– the fact that we are sitting up with a 100 plus year-old institution that up until a couple of years ago did not have any kind of any robust database. I don’t want to make the T look any worse than anybody else. We as a public transportation transit industry couldn’t say—as an industry—what was our deferred maintenance and asset management. It’s been an industry problem and crisis.
Transit agencies across the country have the same kinds of asset management problems?
You’ve got it. The MBTA is head and shoulders above. I can sit up and talk about why they should’ve and they could’ve for decades. They didn’t, OK? They started a good year before I came and still have probably another good year to really go through. If anybody is going to try and suggest that this organization has just been sitting its duff and trying to make up for decades of not having done it, that is unfair.
How does the anti-privatization Pacheco Law affect the MBTA?
There is a tremendous amount of contracting out that takes place at the authority despite the fact that we do have this law. The T’s commuter rail service, paratransit operations, ferry operations, and cleaning services are all contracted out. I would ask this question: What are the areas that we really know would benefit by being able to have a suspension of the law? I am not aware of any a Pacheco-type law anyplace else in the country. So you start out with that fundamental question of why should we even have to have one?
Will the MBTA be better prepared for a normal New England winter?
Oh, yeah! We are dealing with new and much more intense weather patterns. Whether it’s Irenes, Katrinas, droughts, mudslides, microbursts or whatever, we’re all seeing these kinds of things. The kinds of emergency preparedness plans that we have historically had, there was nothing wrong with them. But they need to be all looked at with that new reality in mind. Clearly, none of us expected or asked for this. But that’s Mother Nature. The point is that climate change is real. That said, as we reinvest in and modernize the MBTA for the future, we also need to ensure that we build smart and bake in much greater resilience. This event certainly underscored the fact the whether you personally use the T or not, love it, like it, or hate it— Boston, the region, and the Commonwealth don’t work without it.