What’s happening at the MBTA should burst the myth of Charlie Baker as the great and always awe-inspiring Oz of public sector management.
There’s no wizard behind the curtain. Just a very tall governor with an inconsistent if not oversized reputation for executive brilliance. Baker can claim some victories — the state’s overall response to COVID-19, for example. But he also owns some significant failures, such as the COVID-19-related deaths of at least 76 veterans at the state-operated Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, for which a settlement was just reached — and serious safety concerns at the T.
When it comes to safety, the T has been a fiasco in the making for a long time. For historic perspective, read the 2009 report former Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro did for Governor Deval Patrick. Then, read the 2019 report done for Baker by former US transportation secretary Ray LaHood. The warnings are clear, as are the 61 recommendations in the LaHood report. While T officials contend they have implemented two-thirds of them, it’s obviously not enough. Following a series of derailments, collisions, and an incident that led to the horrific dragging death of a man whose arm became stuck in the door of a Red Line car, the Federal Transit Administration identified four major safety issues they want the T to fix immediately.
Baker continues to insist the MBTA system is safe. Beyond denial, his administration also points to the hundreds of millions it has poured into capital improvements. But as Jim Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce told the Globe: “In business, if you have a project or a division that is failing the way the T is, and you call the person running that project into your office and his answer was, ‘Yeah, but I spent a lot of money,’ that’s not the right answer.” Or, as the LaHood report states: “The agency approach to mitigating hazards seems to be heavily reliant on long-term capital investments, which appears to be done at the expense of properly maintaining legacy system assets and keeping them in a state of good repair.” In 2022, safety concerns persist.
Other red flags cited in the LaHood report include a “brain drain” of transit-seasoned leaders and churn at the very top. Steve Poftak, the current general manager, is the ninth person to hold that position since 2010, and as the LaHood report notes, he “does not possess in-depth transportation operations and safety knowledge, which are the core functions of the organization that he is tasked with managing.” While the report said smart people were brought on during Poftak’s tenure, “the limited transit experience of the new talent impedes their ability to ‘see around corners’ in such a complex system.”
When Baker chose Poftak for the job, the Globe described the new GM as a “public policy veteran who has spent years thinking and writing about transit and public administration.” Poftak ran a policy institute at Harvard University and once worked at the Pioneer Institute, which champions small government. While he’s a regular T rider, he had never run an organization as large as the T. And, as the LaHood report pointed out, he lacked specific knowledge about the core functions of the agency he was hired to run.
In his book, “Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done,” Baker devotes the first chapter to the theme that “People are Policy.” Personnel choices made by a governor, he writes, “say much about what qualities the person making the appointments values.” From that standpoint, his sign-off on the hiring of Bennett Walsh, a politically connected candidate with no health care qualifications, to run the Soldiers’ Home, was a troubling decision. Poftak’s hiring does not fall into that dire category. He’s a thoughtful and engaged leader. But based on the LaHood report, Poftak needed more technical back-up more quickly than he got it, and a governor who did not equate riding the T with being a “virtue signaler” would know that. The public is now paying the price for Baker’s attitude, since the T’s answer to the recent findings of safety issues is to reduce service.
In his book, Baker presents his response to the shutdown of the T during the snowy winter of 2015 as an example of his hands-on managerial approach. Under his leadership, the agency set specific goals: Move the snow, fix the broken-down engines, communicate. To his credit, that happened. But, as he was warned back then, “Once I got involved, I would be stuck with the issue — forever.”
And stuck he is. Can Baker get his managerial mojo back on track at the T between now and his exit as governor? It’s time to re-read Chapter 4: “Push for Results.” His legacy depends on it.