EVERYONE ASSUMED THAT Stephanie Pollack, a long-time advocate for more funding for the MBTA and other transit agencies, was going to find rough going in the no-new-taxes Baker administration. But the secretary of transportation says she is learning a lot of things she didn’t know before.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s special MBTA panel unveiled its report on Wednesday, calling for reform and revenue but insisting that reform has to come first on such issues as spending, worker absenteeism, workplace practices, and inadequate capital spending.
Pollack said after the press conference that she was surprised at what the panel uncovered, particularly its finding that the T was only spending about half of the bond money it was authorized to spend to make capital improvements.
“I was disappointed to find that a lot of additional resources that folks, including myself, in the past have advocated for weren’t being spent,” Pollack said. “It’s hard to advocate for more resources until you use the ones you’re given.”
The Massachusetts Democratic Party issued a statement dismissing the Baker panel’s report as “empty rhetoric.” The party said it endorsed what Pollack said in 2013: “Massachusetts cannot stay competitive regionally, nationally, or globally without making a substantial long-term investment in creating a 21st Century transportation system.”
Pollack said she stands by her 2013 statement. “The system does need long-term investment, but in the short term it needs to make good use of the investment it has,” she said. “The MBTA that is described in the panel report is literally incapable of spending additional resources well. It needs to be fixed.”
Asked why the T didn’t spend the state and federal capital funds it was authorized to spend, Pollack shook her head. “I wish I knew the answer to that question,” she said. “Until this panel asked the T that question, we all assumed they put out a five-year plan, they went off and spent it, and then they came back and said now we need to do our next one.”
Pollack said she assumes the money that was authorized but not spent got stuck somewhere. “I talked to the interim general manager and we are already launching an investigation into where the money got stuck,” she said. “Some of it is literally they cannot move money out the door. We’re hiring a new chief procurement officer. That job has been empty for two years and we’re going to completely reform contracting and procurement, so we can move every penny of capital available to the T out the door and into our assets.”
The secretary is also not opposed to raising fares at the T faster than the law currently allows. (Such a change would need to be approved by the Legislature.) She said the T’s ridership actually increased slightly after fares were raised in 2014, which suggests most riders still consider riding the T a bargain.
“What the panel is trying to say is we may not yet be at the point at which our own riders feel their fares are too high for what they’re getting,” she said. “At other big city transit agencies, they’re asking their riders to pay more than we’re asking our riders to pay.”
Kristina Egan, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said she was not concerned about Pollack’s position on new revenue. “I have a lot of trust in Stephanie,” she said. “I don’t see any contradiction between what she’s doing right now and the overall mission to improve transit service for everybody.”
Rafael Mares, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation who works on transportation issues, said he thinks state officials should pursue reform and revenue for the T at the same time. He said he believes Pollack favors more revenue for the T, but notes the Baker administration is delaying on that front for the time being.
As for the evolution of Pollack’s own thinking, Mares said: “She was an independent academic [at Northeastern University] and now she’s the secretary of transportation. She’s in a different position now.”