THE BEACON HILL tug of war over the MBTA continues to pit those who support Gov. Charlie Baker’s call for a special fiscal control board against those who think an expanded Massachusetts Department of Transportation board is the right medicine for the ailing transit system. Rep. William Straus, the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, thinks we should be talking about a third way: getting rid of the MBTA as a stand-alone authority altogether.
Straus, along with Senate co-chair Thomas McGee, heard hours of testimony last week on whether a fiscal and management control board should take control of MBTA for three to five years to shake the agency out of its stupor. In his opening remarks at the hearing, before Baker testified on his administration’s plan, Straus said that getting rid of the MBTA should not be ruled out, echoing the view that former MBTA general manager Beverly Scott voiced in an interview earlier this month.
CommonWealth contacted Straus and asked him to explain. In addition to putting the MBTA on the same path to extinction as the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the Mattapoisett Democrat said that he would also do away with the MassDOT board.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
At the recent transportation committee hearing where Gov. Baker testified, you said that “the elimination of the MBTA as a stand-alone entity has to inform part of our discussion.” What did you mean by that?
I want certainly other members of the Legislature and the administration to be aware that the real trend that we ought to be pursuing is the merger of the MBTA into MassDOT, just as we merged the now-extinct turnpike authority into MassDOT during the last decade. I don’t know whether it will happen in the near term in the immediate legislation that we’re all working on.
While we are going through the effort to reform, which means change, significant parts of the MBTA, we need to keep in mind the idea of the MBTA as a separate entity, a separate authority, in my view, has lost its currency. By that I mean, the single transportation system that the public accesses doesn’t depend on having these separate operations that are legally distinct because one is the road system and one is the subway system. The integrated transportation system that we want to have can better be operated by the supervision of a single secretary of transportation.
What would happen to the MBTA’s $8 billion plus debt, which is likely to be an obstacle to the type of merger you describe?
The way to deal with that debt is to identify the portions of the debt that relate to different parts of the transit system. So that you would have the ability to dedicate or direct different parts of the revenue stream that come in to different parts of the historic debt. That invites, in a positive way, a discussion about how we pay for transportation in Massachusetts.
What should be done with the MassDOT board of directors? Some have criticized the MassDOT board, not the individuals, but the concept, as one that is ineffective when it comes to tackling the MBTA’s problems.
I am very much in favor of ultimately eliminating a MassDOT board. That’s not because of the talents, or sincerity, or dedication of the people who have been most recently been appointed by Gov. Baker or who have served in the past. The idea of the board doesn’t relate to efficient management. If they meet once a month, they really have a hard time getting into the details of what needs to happen. So many of the issues involving transportation management today are pretty well known, so ideas like performance management, design-build procurement – these are things that you want you the everyday management team to be involved in.
Part of what I am hoping we accomplish is actually creating a slimmed-down MBTA, which will again bring us toward that goal—the word I’ll use is merger— so that we end up with a single transportation system. I don’t think that we need multiple procurement agencies in the transportation sector anymore. The MBTA is not at their best in operating a procurement operation, buying the signals, buying the track, buying new cars, reviewing even the commuter rail contract. I also want people to realize we already have a pretty well run procurement operation in the rest of MassDOT. We should consider making them the procurement agency for our MBTA-related services.
But the governor is hanging tough on a fiscal control board. Why do you say it creates is a new layer of bureaucracy? There were a number of boards and commissions created in the 2013 transportation legislation to look at expansion issues, for example.
When you create a commission or a board to look at a specific issue, you are doing a specific research or evaluation project; you are not altering governance [of an agency]. The financial control board is, particularly when you see they’ll have the authority to set fares, no small issue. That’s a governance change, and that’s a different type of animal to me.
Is the idea of dissolving the MBTA being actively discussed among House leaders?
Well, yes. But it’s discussed among legislators all the time. But certainly in leadership, we have our immediate responsibility to address the problems that became painfully apparent this winter. We are always working on continuing transportation reform.
Let’s go back to your first question of why I felt it important in my initial remarks with the governor sitting right there to put everything in the context of a more centralized, focused, and managed transportation system. That also is why something like another indirect, appointed entity like the financial control board, which could be around for up to five years, is a problem for me, because it gets in the way of what is a clear effort to centralize transportation management in Massachusetts. We would be losing time, valuable time, if we went in a way that I consider backwards by creating more management panels rather than less.
Can the House and the Senate compromise on this issue?
Frankly—and I’ve said this to the governor in our conversations with each other— as a starting point, I think probably 80 percent of the governor’s bill is pretty good and probably acceptable. [The House also has an expanded board proposal.] During the budget debate, we accepted a [House Minority Leader] Brad Jones amendment expanding the MassDOT board to 11 members.
It’s interesting to me that during the last week, the only part of the governor’s bill that he is aggressively defending seems to be to create the added bureaucracy of the financial control board. That board would only seem to have one distinct new power that does not reside currently with the administration under law: the ability to raise fares as they deem necessary. There are the labor points, dealing with binding arbitration [and the Pacheco law]. But as a pure transportation issue, the only new option that a financial board gets, which doesn’t exist under the law today, would be the ability to raise fares without any restrictions. If the governor wants the position of secretary [of transportation] or the general manager to have the clear, legal authority to raise fares at will, just say so, and ask that it be added to their existing powers.
I sincerely believe that the House and Senate have a really good chance of coming to an agreement on the more pure transportation issues as distinct from the labor-related issues that have come up. That’s where I am directing my efforts.