MAYOR MICHELLE WU, who has pushed for a Boston seat on the MBTA board since she was a city councilor, finally got her chance to appoint a member through a provision in this year’s state budget. After years of leavening transit policy arguments with first-hand accounts of her own trials as a regular T commuter, Wu tapped someone for the role who can also personally identify with Boston’s long-suffering T riders.
Mary Skelton Roberts, appointed by the mayor last month to the new board seat, brings a deep background in transit and environmental policy – as well as the experience of many frustrating hours on the Orange Line and various bus routes.
In announcing her appointment, the city called it “a moment of crisis for the MBTA.” Skelton Roberts said she and her daughter are both regular users of the system and know the “pain points” that passengers are experiencing.
The Jamaica Plain resident currently serves as president of the Climate Beacon Conference and is a senior advisor to the Climate Beacon Project, a recently launched non-profit committed to ensuring Massachusetts achieves an equitable energy transition. She also sits on the Governor’s Latino Empowerment Council.
Skelton Roberts, who has a master’s degree in city planning, served for more than a decade as co-director of climate policy efforts at the Boston-based Barr Foundation, and was a senior vice president at the Energy Foundation, which is focused on tackling climate change through a transition to clean energy.
One board meeting in, Skelton Roberts is still new to the position and quick to acknowledge that she’s still getting her bearings. In an interview on Thursday, she said she wants to see a “comprehensive strategy” for getting the system on track, but voiced confidence in the T’s leadership under its new general manager, Phillip Eng, saying she thinks the agency is “in really good hands.”
Free fares on public transit, a long-held policy goal for Wu and a policy that Skelton Roberts herself has said was “long overdue,” is one area of alignment between the mayor and the city’s new T representative. She said expanding bus lanes and electrifying bus and commuter rail lines as part of the “decarbonization” push are also priorities she’ll bring to the board.
I spoke with Skelton Roberts via Zoom. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: Mayor Wu made the rather unconventional decision to invite members of the public to recommend someone for the new seat on the MBTA board that you now occupy. How did the process look from your end?
MARY SKELTON ROBERTS: The city of Boston had a website that enabled people to recommend someone or submit an application yourself. It was open and transparent. A lot of people submitted their names and recommended others.
My understanding is that my name was submitted various times by lots of people. Then I submitted an application a lot later in the process. I had a wonderful conversation with Mayor Wu. She has long been an advocate of public transit and bus ridership and equity in the transportation system. There was just so much alignment between the work that I had been supporting in my previous role at the Barr Foundation, the work I’d done with the MBTA, the Boston Transportation Department, with MassDOT, and this new opportunity.
CW: Talk to me about your regular T commute and the kind of rider perspective you’ll bring to the board.
SKELTON ROBERTS: I take the bus and oftentimes you’ll see me on the Orange Line or any number of lines, so I know what people are experiencing on the train. My daughter takes the train from Forest Hills all the way to Harvard Square. We’re a family of people that ride the T.
So we understand those pain points. We know when it’s not working. We know 20-minute headways shouldn’t be the standard, right. So I think I bring a perspective of both a Boston resident, a transit rider, and then also somebody who’s super optimistic that we gotta get this right. We will figure this out.
CW: What problems has riding the Orange Line illustrated for you?
SKELTON ROBERTS: There are two big ones for me. One is the uncertainty when you ride public transit. Whether you’re on the bus or you’re on the T, you just never know when you’re going to get where you need to go. The other one is that when something’s happening, I just want to know. If I’m on the platform and I see that the wait time is literally 20 minutes, there has to be a reason why that train is delayed, right? Oftentimes it’s because they’ve been doing work on the track or something. But I just want to be told why things are being delayed. And I think that for me would just go a long way in helping me plan my day.
CW: You’ve attended one T board meeting so far. Any takeaways?
SKELTON ROBERTS: It was interesting having a front-row seat to what the T is doing, so I have a couple of takeaways. I was encouraged by the conversation regarding addressing the safety issues because if the workers don’t feel safe, they can’t go and do repairs. Commuters don’t feel safe if they think a train is going to fall apart or there’s going to be a fire. I was glad to see that there is a plan and there is work that is happening on this.
I was also really impressed to hear community leaders talk about the MBTA team needing to hire rapidly and bring more staff on board. You need to be able to have a pipeline of workers, you need to have people be able to get jobs and get them quickly and be trained quickly. For that, you need to have salaries that are competitive with other transit systems. And I think Massachusetts just did that.
CW: We hear all the time that there is a disconnect between the board and regular commuters. How are you planning on bridging the gap?
SKELTON ROBERTS: I think you’ve just described it really well – part of my job is bridging that gap. I want to get a solid sense of what the residents of Boston really want to see. It’s not my job to do the work [of fixing the T], but it’s my job to sort of communicate that desire. From the perspective of governance and policy, I will be making sure that they’re aligned with expectations from the community.
I’m too new to know right now what the community engagement strategy will be, but what I can say is I’m fully committed to working with the City of Boston, with the mayor, with the Boston Transportation Department, with MassDOT, and the MBTA to figure out how we are being more transparent and how we can engage more regularly with residents and riders.
That’s a long way to say: I don’t know yet. But I think it’s due time we are more transparent and communicate more effectively, and I can do that from the role I have.
CW: It has been a terrible month for public transit in Boston. The Green Line is a mess. A portion of the Red Line is about to be shut down. The Orange Line is a cautionary tale. How will you work to change that reality?
SKELTON ROBERTS: It’s [General Manager] Phillip Eng’’s job to fix the T. So the question becomes: Have we put the right person in that role to be able to get us to the state of good repair to be able to address issues pretty rapidly as they emerge? From my limited experience, I’m really excited that Eng is in this role. From a transit perspective, I think we’re in really good hands.
CW: In your capacity as a board member, how will you push for change?
SKELTON ROBERTS: I want to really focus on how the T prioritizes good repairs, where people need to get to, the pain points that we’re seeing, how we serve the communities that could really be enhanced through bus service and rural rail service. I want to see a comprehensive strategy.
CW: Once you have a better grasp of what the comprehensive strategy is at the MBTA, will it be part of your role to share this with the public?
SKELTON ROBERTS: I wouldn’t say my role is sharing the plan. I would say that that’s the T’s role. And my role is to encourage the MBTA to share that plan and to be as transparent as possible.
CW: You are aligned with Mayor Wu on a lot of the policies. Where might there be areas of disagreement between you and Mayor Wu?
SKELTON ROBERTS: I don’t see any. I envision having really good lines of communication with the mayor and the city staff to figure out where the alignment points are. Like I said, I’m too new yet to know that many details, but ask me again in six months.
CW: In the same vein, do you feel free to disagree with the governor’s administration?
SKELTON ROBERTS: There’s no disagreement, there’s no conflict. I really want to focus on collaboration. I built my career on figuring out how to collaborate when you’re addressing really difficult issues. There may be a point where I have a completely different view than other members of the board or the Healey administration. But we all at the end of the day have the same goal. We want a transportation system that works, that meets the needs of riders, that reduces carbon and that continues to make Massachusetts globally competitive. I want to focus on the points where we do agree. I’ve been put on this board to represent the City of Boston and to make sure that the state does deliver for all of its residents.
CW: Part of your role will be to set the agenda for the board. What policies are you particularly going to push for?
SKELTON ROBERTS: Ongoing bus lane projects and bus service enhancements. [Commuter] rail transformation, maybe starting with the Fairmount Line and then the new West Station [in Allston]. I’d love us to look at opportunities to expand rapid transit and how we can accommodate population and job growth.
My big focus is also climate change. How are we electrifying our buses and trains? How is the MBTA planning for climate change and thinking about a strategy for decarbonization?
CW: You mentioned the Fairmount Line. It will be free while there’s a shutdown on the Red Line and the Mattapan Line later this month. Initially, the MBTA was resistant to making the line free during this time. What changed?
SKELTON ROBERTS: The credit goes to Boston for leading the advocacy here. The advocacy community, the mayor, the City of Boston came out in support of it. I think that the T heard that and they responded appropriately. For me, it’s a small step towards the city’s broader agenda of looking at making commuter rail more accessible and more equitable. We’ve long been advocating to have Zone 1A [commuter rail stops within Boston] be free, because we think about an equitable commuter rail as part of moving people in and out of the city.
CW: Mayor Wu has made fare-free public transit part of her platform and you’ve been quoted as saying that fare-free public transit “long overdue.”
SKELTON ROBERTS: That is the mayor’s position, and I support the mayor’s position. It’s an issue I just gotta get smarter on. I want to understand how it fits within a strategy to make our transit system more equitable.