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OPINION

Don’t scrap the MBTA. Free it from Beacon Hill politics.

There’s nothing duller than talking about governance. But there’s also nothing more important when it comes to accountability.

In the face of catastrophic MBTA service disruptions, not to mention a passenger dragged to his death after his arm was caught in a malfunctioning subway door, this new board has been remarkably quiet when it comes to speaking up for T riders.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Given the MBTA’s current state of misery, why not eradicate it and create something new?

It depends on the definition of new. State Representative William Straus, the House co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, recently threw out the idea of folding the T into the state Department of Transportation. That’s what happened to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and nobody misses it, he said. And, he’s right about that much. No one misses the Turnpike Authority except the people once on its payroll.

But James Aloisi, who was Transportation secretary when the Turnpike Authority- into-DOT merger was authorized, doesn’t think it’s the right answer for the T. “MassDOT is a highway department,” he said, with nothing in common with “a highly functional public transportation agency.” Which the T is not, right now. To meet that lofty description, what should be reworked is the T’s governance structure, said Aloisi.

Yes, I know. There’s nothing duller than talking about governance. But there’s also nothing more important when it comes to accountability.

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Historically, the T’s governance structure put power primarily in the hands of the governor. For example, the T’s general manager, who is in charge of operating the system, is appointed by a board that’s primarily appointed by the governor. Board members who want to stay on it pick the GM the governor wants, and that’s true whether the governor is a Democrat or a Republican, said Aloisi.

Baker took as much power as the Legislature gave him, which was a lot.

It started after the cataclysmic winter of 2015, when Baker received authority to set up a board with the supposed mission of making the T more accountable. That board asked a lot of questions, but clearly not enough, given the recent cycle of runaway trains, plus one that burst into flames.

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When that board went out of business last year, Baker signed a law creating a new, seven-member board of directors. It includes the secretary of Transportation, who reports directly to the governor, and one member chosen by the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent organization that represents 176 cities and towns in the T’s service area. The other five members are all appointed by the governor. In the face of catastrophic service disruptions, not to mention a passenger dragged to his death after his arm was caught in a malfunctioning subway door, this new board has been remarkably quiet when it comes to speaking up for T riders.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michelle Wu, a strong advocate for a better T, just lost a bid to get a seat for Boston on the board. That outcome was attributed to end-of-legislative-session confusion, but who wants a strong voice demanding change on a board currently known for a willingness to accept the status quo?

More strong, independent voices speaking up for riders are exactly what’s needed on the board to force the T to fix itself, said Aloisi. He proposes a hybrid board that divides power between the governor and the municipalities the T serves. With that, I think Aloisi is on the right track.

Folding the T into DOT simply folds one opaque bureaucracy into another — and into one with its own share of problems. Remember, the Registry of Motor Vehicles also falls under the DOT, and one of the things the RMV is most known for is failing to suspend licenses that should have been suspended, and, as a result, putting dangerous drivers on the road. One of those drivers, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, is currently on trial for negligent homicide in the deaths of seven motorcycle club members in New Hampshire in 2019. In that case, the governance structure didn’t lead to more accountability. When the Zhukovskyy tragedy occurred, Baker and his secretary of Transportation at the time distanced themselves from any responsibility.

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The current MBTA board of directors is accountable, above all, to the governor who appoints its members. That might work out OK with a governor who truly believes in public transit, understands its importance to the economic health and social life of a city, and doesn’t think that using it is being a “virtue signaler” as Baker does. But a healthy T shouldn’t depend on the whims of any particular governor. It should be governed by a board that’s insulated from shifting political priorities on Beacon Hill.

The next governor shouldn’t eradicate the T, but set it free by sharing power with the riders who use it.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.