When it comes to the MBTA — and specifically to the leadership entrusted with implementing a transportation vision for Massachusetts — Governor Charlie Baker has some serious soul-searching to do.
Over and over again — until this past week — Baker insisted that time and patience, not more money, were all that was needed to solve the T’s problems. Now — like an unwelcome storm that hits the Orange Line at rush hour — comes a scathing report from an independent panel led by Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman and US transportation secretary. The review, commissioned after a series of high-profile derailments and other incidents, concluded that “safety is not a priority” at the T; cost-cutting is. It also said the transit authority is not keeping up with maintenance, a failure that undercuts reliability and endangers passengers. And to top it off, the report said the T is currently run by people who don’t know enough about transit issues to change that on their own.
Since 2010, there have been nine new general managers, and the current GM, Steve Poftak, has only been in place since January 2019. According to this report, the incumbent GM “does not possess in-depth transportation and safety knowledge, which are the core functions of the organization which he is tasked with managing.” Meanwhile, a culture of fear stops employees from reporting serious concerns.
Baker now concedes the T will need more money and staffing to implement the report’s 34 recommendations, which include calls for establishing safety objectives; safety performance targets; and the coaching and mentoring top T executives. However, the governor stopped short of calling for new revenue, which could be easily accomplished by raising the gas tax. Meanwhile, the Legislature reduced a $50 million earmark for the T to $32 million, with House Speaker Robert DeLeo suggesting Baker has been unclear about its purpose.
A close read of the full report suggests something more than money is missing at the T: leadership from the top of the Baker administration. And acknowledging that deficit may be even harder for Baker than acknowledging the need for new revenue.
This is the second state agency falling under the purview of state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to be called out for putting safety on the back burner. At the Registry of Motor Vehicles, a commitment to reducing wait times for customers apparently took precedence over the processing of out-of-state alerts about law-breaking Massachusetts drivers. Pollack said she knew nothing about the boxes filled with thousands of unprocessed violations until a Massachusetts truck driver whose commercial license should have been suspended crashed into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven. Similar to the T review, an independent audit of the RMV attributed problems there to poor communication and lack of expertise from those put in charge of running the operation.
The governor, who has so far stood by Pollack, rejects the idea of any parallels between the MBTA and the RMV. “I don’t think safety’s ever been a blind spot,” he said at a press conference after the release of the T safety report.
Baker’s defensive posture runs up against the independent panel’s scary yet ultimately predictable findings. In November 2009, a review commissioned by Governor Deval Patrick and led by David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, forecast a bleak future if longstanding maintenance problems at the T were not addressed. “It stands to reason that an aging, complex and underfunded transportation system will have to confront unpleasant surprises that can result in safety hazards and service delays,” that report said.
Those “unpleasant surprises” are happening now, in real time, on Baker’s watch. More investment is part of the solution. But Baker must also decide if he has the right leadership in place to make sure more money produces what’s lacking today — a safe, reliable transit system.