Once a fierce advocate for public transit who rose to prominence fighting to offset pollution from the Big Dig, Stephanie Pollack might seem a surprising choice to become the nation’s deputy highway administrator.
But on Monday, in her first public remarks since announcing her departure for the Biden administration, the state’s outgoing transportation secretary said she would keep all modes of transportation in mind in her new role helping to oversee US roadways.
“Some people think it’s a little odd that I’m headed to [the] Federal Highway [Administration],” Pollack said during her final meeting of the MBTA’s governing board, nodding to her previous career as an environmental lawyer and transportation researcher. “But many of you have heard me say that I don’t think of people as pedestrians or bicyclists or bus riders or transit users or drivers. I think of them as people who need the transportation system to help connect them to the things they want and need.”
“And so I go into Federal Highway with a mindset that it can be an agency that supports people rather than a singular mode of transportation,” Pollack added.
On Tuesday, Pollack will conclude her six-year tenure in Governor Charlie Baker’s administration — a span featuring significant new investment in transit modernization but marred by major crises at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the MBTA. A self-described political progressive serving in a Republican cabinet, Pollack also leaves a strained relationship with the pro-transit community she came from, after protracted disputes over MBTA service, expansion, fares, and funding, and the best approach to a huge infrastructure project in Allston.
But her comments Monday may reflect why national transportation advocates have celebrated her appointment as a positive sign for issues such as roadway safety. Under Pollack, for example, the state has implemented roadway design standards that advance bus service, as well as cycling and walking infrastructure.
“If you look at who’s in charge of state departments of transportation across the country, she is probably the most progressive on those issues,” said Angie Schmitt, a pedestrian safety advocate and owner of 3MPH Planning and Consulting.
“Considering that most transit runs on roads . . . it is hard to overstate the importance of having a committed transit leader in charge of FHWA,” added Beth Osborne of the interest group Transportation for America.
Pollack will serve as acting highway administrator until a permanent chief is confirmed. The agency is largely administrative, and directs roadway funds to the states under a formula, though the agency also awards some discretionary grants. But there are policy implications, too: the FHWA sets guidelines that have a significant effect on roadway design across the country.
Despite Boston’s notorious pre-pandemic congestion, the state’s highway division has been treated like the golden child of Baker’s transportation department, managing most of its major infrastructure projects successfully.
Pollack, a visible public figure and hands-on manager across the transportation system, is leaving at a time of uncertainty. The MBTA is implementing service cuts as officials try to gauge the pandemic’s short-term and long-term effects on commuting. The state is also facing massive decisions about the $1.3 billion reconstruction of the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston, another source of tension between Pollack and advocates.
State Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, said Pollack’s departure could help the project move forward.
“I think everyone can acknowledge it’s at a virtual standstill,“ Straus said. “Maybe a new secretary with fresh eyes will help advance that project.”
The transportation department will now be overseen by a new acting secretary: Jamey Tesler, who became leader of the RMV after a licensing scandal in 2019 stemming from a truck crash in New Hampshire that killed seven motorcyclists.
Tesler is a veteran of the department, having served in a variety of roles under several administrations, and is seen more as a manager and administrator compared to Pollack’s sharp focus on policy. It’s unclear how that style will translate into action; at Monday’s meeting, Tesler offered congratulatory remarks for Pollack before saying he would quietly listen to the discussion.
Pollack’s departure was abrupt, and Baker last week seemed uncertain whether Tesler was likely to assume the role permanently or if officials would search elsewhere for a replacement. Tesler’s experience “makes it possible for us to create a plan and pursue a strategy for replacing the secretary,” Baker said at a news conference, adding that policy developed under Pollack will likely remain intact.
But on Monday, some of Pollack’s colleagues said they were hopeful she could affect change at the national level.
“It’s my hope you’ll be able to . . . make a positive impact in this role, and really take this country and try to reform many of the awful transportation policies,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice-chair of the MBTA board.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.