Thomas J. Tinlin, who rose from City Hall security guard to become one of the longest-serving transportation commissioners in Boston history, is leaving municipal government to take a key state highway job, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced Thursday.
On Jan. 13, Tinlin will become chief of operations and maintenance for the state’s roads and highways, a job that includes overseeing snow and ice removal, pavement condition, and other daily issues. He will leave City Hall with Mayor Thomas M. Menino at the end of next week, making him the latest Cabinet secretary to announce his departure before Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh takes office, along with Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. , labor-relations chief John Dunlap, and others.
Like his mentor, Tinlin developed an “urban mechanic” reputation for paying attention to neighborhood concerns about stop signs and traffic lights, even as he guided policy and worked closely with the state on design, construction, and traffic-flow issues around billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.
Adding 100 miles of bike lanes and working with the state to make major Charles River crossings such as the Longfellow and BU bridges more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly earned Tinlin and Menino accolades from cyclists, walkers, and transit riders, but also the ire of many drivers and residents.
That Tinlin handled everything with self-deprecating humor and diplomacy was part of what made him attractive to MassDOT, atop his expertise. State Highway Administrator Frank DePaola likened the signing of Tinlin to a free agent acquisition in baseball; Tinlin turned down a more lucrative private-sector offer to take the $130,000-a-year state job.
DePaola said he wants Tinlin, in addition to working on daily roadway conditions, to focus on using technology and creativity to relieve congestion without building new highways. “I think Tom has proven over many years that he can take an existing roadway network and through his leadership he can squeeze some additional capacity where people thought there was no more,” he said.
A lifelong South Boston resident who had a couple of “false starts” in college, Tinlin was 22 and working as a City Hall security guard when Menino, then a councilor, befriended him in 1988 and pressed him to resume his studies.
“I thought I had all the answers. I didn’t realize life was offering more,” said Tinlin, who eventually followed Menino’s advice, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in public administration at night. At the same time, he was working in a variety of roles in the Menino administration, starting in 1993, first in neighborhood relations and then transportation. He became commissioner in 2004, initially in an acting capacity.
After Menino decided not to seek reelection this year, Tinlin received an enticing pitch to work in the private sector but ultimately declined, he said.
“The mayor taught me a long time ago, you have plenty of time to make money, but how often do you have the opportunity to make a difference?” he said.
Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said Tinlin has demonstrated a knack for balancing nuts and bolts with major decisions.
“A lot of folks who are going to leave the Menino administration . . . are going to go to the private sector — which they’re certainly entitled to do,” said Pollack, who focuses on transportation and land-use issues. “But it’s particularly wonderful when you have a public servant like Tom Tinlin who’s so good at his job who’s willing to stay in the public sector.”
DePaola said Tinlin’s hiring follows the decision of the current state highway operations and maintenance chief, Jerry Allen, to retire after a four-decade career. Allen will stay on through most of 2014 to work on special projects, focusing on the switch to all-electronic, cash-free tolling, DePaola said.