Steve Poftak, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, will step down on Jan. 3 after four years in the top job, some of the most challenging and troubled in the agency’s history.
The resignation comes nearly a full year before his contract is set to end, but will coincide with a new governor taking office.
“Serving as MBTA General Manager has been the experience of a lifetime and it has been my honor and privilege to work with all of you,” he wrote in an e-mail to staff Tuesday afternoon. “While we have faced and will continue to face challenges, I believe in the strength and resilience of the MBTA.”
His pending departure is the latest turbulence to hit the transportation agency, which is working to comply with new federal safety directives after a series of failures that resulted in injuries to passengers and workers and the death of one rider on the Red Line, and deep cuts to subway and bus service.
In his letter, Poftak said he is proud of accomplishments the MBTA made during his tenure, including keeping service going during a global pandemic that brought much of the economy to a slow grind for extended periods.
In a statement, Governor Charlie Baker said Poftak “brought long term stability to the T when it was sorely needed.”
“The T workforce showed up every day during the pandemic when most could stay at home, and thanks to Steve’s leadership during that period, Steve and his team have continued to build a better T every day,” Baker said.
The Baker administration appointed Poftak to lead the MBTA starting in 2019 after former general manager Luis Ramirez left the post just 15 months into his tenure. Poftak had previously been vice chair on the agency’s oversight board; a member of the MassDOT board; and briefly was acting general manager of the T in 2017. Poftak also previously worked as the head of an institute at Harvard University and a research director at the Pioneer Institute, a small-government think tank.
He is the longest serving general manager of the T during the Baker years. His tenure was marked by the pandemic, the opening of the first branch of the Green Line Extension, and two very similar scathing safety audits by outside experts.
Poftak declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed Tuesday.
His contract with the T was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023, according to a copy obtained by the Globe. Poftak said in the e-mail to staff that for his remaining two months, he will focus on preparing for “the transition to a new administration and to new leadership.”
Poftak’s last day will be just two days before a new governor will be sworn in, on Jan. 5.
Through the turmoil during his tenure, Poftak retained the confidence of state transportation leaders.
Transit advocates who haven’t always agreed with Poftak said he has been an accessible leader, regularly keeping them in the loop on the agency’s initiatives.
“He always took a phone call, he always listened and showed up,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said she often ran into Poftak on the Orange Line as both commuted from their homes in Roslindale and described him as “responsive,” “thoughtful,” and “diligent.” Wu said that when Poftak called her Tuesday to tell her he would soon be stepping down, he brought up projects the city and the T are working on together, such as a new bus maintenance facility in Jamaica Plain.
“He’s certainly continuing to make sure that these remaining weeks are impactful,” she said.
Wu declined to say who she wants to see appointed as the next general manager, but said the person must know the T well, have experience working as a leader of a large organization, and be familiar with the “community and political context.”
And it must be someone who will hit the ground running and immediately tackle one of the T’s biggest challenges: hiring. In its safety inspection report earlier this year, the Federal Transit Administration said the T may be short around 2,000 workers.
“We are at a really critical time for the MBTA,” Wu said. “The reliability and confidence that the public can have in our mass transit system will make or break our growth as a region. . . . Housing, education, jobs, it all comes down to whether people can get around the region or not.”
Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, said that he applauds Poftak’s work “under very difficult circumstances” and that finding a qualified new leader for the T should be a “top priority” for the next administration.
“We should shoot for the stars and look for an individual capable of dealing with safety first,” who also isn’t afraid to be “aspirational in wanting to create the best possible transit system in the country,” he said.
In a statement, Senator Elizabeth Warren called Poftak’s resignation “long overdue.” Last month Warren grilled Poftak about the T’s safety failures during a congressional hearing in Boston.
“We now have a critical opportunity to make much-needed changes and ensure our public transit system is safe, reliable, and first-rate,” she said.
The front-runner in the race for governor, Democratic nominee Maura Healey, previously said she planned to appoint a new general manager for the T.
In a statement, campaign spokesperson Karissa Hand said, “as Governor, Maura will work to address urgent structural, fiscal and workforce challenges at the MBTA, and that includes appointing a new General Manager whose top job will be to ensure safety, reliability and accessibility across the system.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.