FOUR YEARS AGO, in the wake of Snowmageddon, Gov. Charlie Baker called for the creation of a new Fiscal and Management Control Board to oversee the MBTA.
Not everyone thought the new board was a good idea. Rep. William Straus, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, saw the control board as an unnecessary, new layer of bureaucracy between the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board and the T.
But the Legislature gave the governor what he wanted, and Baker appointed five people to oversee the T. The board members received no pay and were required to meet at least three times a month. Baker, through his secretary of transportation, appointed the general manager of the transit authority.
One of the primary goals of the new management regime was to bring focus and stability to the MBTA. “The MBTA has been hobbled by frequent changes of leadership, significant vacancies, looming attrition, and overall instability,” said an action plan written in April 2015 by a special panel appointed by Baker. The panel noted that the MBTA had nine general managers since the position was created in 1981, six of them (three of whom were interim GMs) in the last 10 years.
On Monday, another special panel, this time appointed by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, issued a scathing report on the MBTA’s inattention to safety issues. Two key findings of the safety panel related to governance issues.
“Starting at the executive leadership level, the recurrent turnover in general managers over the past 10 years has been incredibly disruptive and has placed the agency in a vulnerable position,” the panel’s report said. “This may be the overarching reason that we see the level of safety deficiency at the agency.”
The report noted that there have been nine general managers since 2010. Since Baker took office and Beverly Scott departed as general manager, the T has had six GMs, four of them interim appointments. Luis Manuel Ramirez served just 15 months and the current GM, Steve Poftak, was appointed in January.
The safety report also said the frequent meetings of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which typically last three to four hours, were having a detrimental effect on the T. “Staff preparation to meet the needs of the Board is overwhelming and leaves staff little if any time to tend to the operation of the maintenance of the system,” the report said. “It’s unquestionable that this mandate is causing staff to ‘take their eye off the ball’ and contributes to safety not getting the time and attention it requires.”
The control board, in defiance of the existing law, began meeting less in July to free up more time for staff to do their work. With the control board set to expire in June next year, Baker said he would file legislation next month creating a new oversight board. He said the legislation would include two recommendations of the safety panel – that the board meet less and include at least one member with operational and safety expertise.
But as the debate over the next control board begins, it’s worth thinking about what kind of oversight the T needs today. It may be true that the control board meets too often, but each time it meets it seems like there’s plenty of work to be done.
The board has matured into a powerful policy organization. All of its members are appointed by the governor, but the board has repeatedly demonstrated its independence, pushing for a major commuter rail makeover and advocating somewhat quietly for more spending on transportation. The board over the last four-plus years has been a pillar of stability at an agency where GMs have come and gone frequently.
More importantly, the board, through its frequent meetings, has opened transit policy discussions to the public. The meetings may be orchestrated and somewhat stilted at times, but the key players are there setting policy in public for everyone to see.
The safety panel on Monday focused a lot of attention on the culture of the MBTA. “To meet the demands of the future, the agency must address its safety culture – it is critical to every aspect of the agency,” the report said. “The GM must make safety his number one priority and realize there is nothing more important to the T’s customers and employees than safety.”
That may be true. But as the GM goes about addressing safety issues, attention should also be paid to MBTA governance. The meetings of the control board may consume an enormous amount of staff time, but they represent a major culture shift for an agency known in the past for flying under the radar.