As Massachusetts slowly comes back to life, as people return to work, the role of the MBTA — how it responds to rider demands, operates safely and hygienically, controls its budget, and looks to the future — will be at the center of the state’s recovery.
Key to doing all that for the past five years has been the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board — scheduled to go out of business at the end of the month.
Breathing new life into a new and improved board, expanded and slightly restructured, is one of those items that should go on the Legislature’s just-can’t-wait list.
It’s hard to remember life before the FMCB — and on a balmy summer day to remember the chaos of the winter of 2015 when, yes, the system at times ground to a halt, its management in a state of near-constant befuddlement and its budget largely fictional.
The control board was created by Governor Charlie Baker with legislative approval to bring order out of that chaos. Sure the transit system is still far from perfect, but the board brought an unparalleled level of transparency to T budgeting and contracting, reduced the T’s operating deficits, and explored innovative options for increasing revenue. On its watch, an over-budget Green Line Extension was pared back to a fiscally manageable reality. And repairs to an aging system became a priority.
It’s not that any public official would actually stand up now and argue that the board should go out of existence. But getting business done on Beacon Hill in the midst of a pandemic has added a degree of difficulty to the usual political rivalries. Little differences become bigger obstacles than they should.
This week, the Senate opted to jump-start the process of creating a new T control board in what can best be described as a mini-transportation bill. “Mini” because it’s not the $18 billion transportation borrowing bill — complete with a $500 million a year revenue stream — passed by the House last March, on the very eve of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This current Senate effort is no substitute for that expansive bill, which cries out for future consideration. But until the state gets a handle on its finances — including the not-even-drafted state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — this will help.
This bill authorizes $300 million in bonds for local highway projects that were indeed part of that omnibus House bill. And it creates a new seven-member MBTA Board of Directors to replace the current five-member fiscal control board. Five of those members would be appointed by the governor and must include one representative of the riding community and two members of the Transportation Department Board of Directors. The transportation secretary would serve ex officio and the seventh member would be chosen by the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents member communities.
The new board would have the power to hire and fire the T general manager, although that would require a vote of five members in the event the transportation secretary isn’t in the majority.
One of the gripes about the Fiscal Management and Control Board was that it met so often that officials spent too much time preparing for meetings. The Senate plan would require the reauthorized board and the board would be required to meet at least 20 times a year, down from the grueling 36 meetings a year it currently holds.
The House plan for extending the life of the fiscal control board was included in its version of that major transportation package. It too proposed a seven-member board, but included a seat designated for the city of Boston and another for a representative from a second community in the MBTA’s district (the agency serves 176 cities and towns in some fashion, according to its last financial statement).
A designated seat for Boston would sure be nice, but it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
Back in January, when the governor filed his budget — and with it, his plan to extend the life of the board and expand it to seven members — Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she hoped that new structure would be passed at least 45 days before the June 30 deadline, to assure a smooth transition.
Well, that was a pandemic ago. The urgency, however, remains. A board that has truly proved its worth in the past five years must be there to guide the system through the tough times ahead. The state’s lawmakers can make that happen.
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