As it works through its profound financial woes, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority needs to present a compelling face to the public. Beverly Scott, who currently heads the transit agency in Atlanta, seems well-equipped to fill that role. After a long public interview Monday, in which Scott touted her efforts to sway Georgia legislators and made it obvious she’d already begun chatting up T employees, the MBTA board chose her as the new general manager of the Boston-area system. The bet, presumably, is that an outsider’s eyes may help identify problems that grizzled T veterans might overlook, and that her personable approach will go over well as Beacon Hill gears up to tackle transportation funding issues early next year.
Yet while the T needs to have a capable, consumer-oriented leader who can make the best of a challenging situation, it also needs Governor Patrick and the Legislature to deal with the broader transportation financing problem that engulfed the state during the Big Dig era. Scott cannot succeed in her new task until Beacon Hill finds a sustainable way of paying down transportation debt, clearing a backlog of necessary repairs in all the state’s highway and transit systems, and finding a way to finance future improvements.
In a way, Scott’s appointment indicates an encouraging level of personal involvement on Patrick’s part. The Globe reported last week — days before the board conducted a formal interview — that Scott was the governor’s choice for the position. This undercuts the T board’s independence. Yet any sign that the governor is taking ownership of the fate of the MBTA is a healthy omen for the agency.
Of the two finalists who submitted to public interviews Monday, Scott showed a broader view of the general manager’s job. The other finalist, Dwight Ferrell — who, a little awkwardly, is currently the chief operating officer of the Atlanta system that Scott leads — presented himself as a cost-cutter who’d look for ways to run the agency more efficiently. And the T still needs pressure in that direction; the existence of waste at the agency becomes a convenient excuse not to address the insufficiency of its funding.
Yet the T can’t cut its way to good operation. Many of Greater Boston’s hottest economic zones — Kendall Square, the Longwood Medical Area, the emerging tech cluster in the Seaport District — are in areas where automobile access is challenging at best. The Commonwealth’s soundest strategy for addressing a dearth of reasonably priced housing calls for dense development around transit stops across Eastern Massachusetts; that strategy falls apart if the commuter rail system does.
Scott’s personal charm may well rally support for an agency that often exasperates those who use it and prompts suspicion among those who don’t. But there’s only so much a new general manager can do alone.