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Maura Healey’s first big test: Finding someone to fix the T

Baker’s MBTA general managers didn’t have experience running transit systems. That should change under the new governor.

Passengers board the Red Line at Ashmont in Dorchester earlier this year.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Maura Healey’s most important hire? Hands down, it has to be picking the next general manager of the MBTA.

The governor-elect is under enormous pressure to fix the T after a year in which just about everything has gone wrong: a passenger dragged to his death on the Red Line, a rider who jumped into the Mystic River to escape a burning train, an unprecedented monthlong shutdown of the Orange Line.

Charlie Baker has had five GMs during his two terms; four were his picks. What’s remarkable is that only one of Baker’s appointees, Frank DePaola, came with a true transportation background, most notably as the state highway administrator.

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Otherwise, there has been an academic (Steve Poftak), venture capitalist (Brian Shortsleeve), and a corporate executive (Luis Ramirez) leading one of the nation’s largest transit systems over the last seven-plus years.

I’m all for thinking outside the box in hiring, but enough is enough. We need to go back to the basics: The next GM must be someone with significant, operational transit experience.

It may seem like a no-brainer to want someone steeped in making the buses and trains run on time, and one who understands that safety has to be at the core of everything.

The fact that I even have to point this out speaks volumes about how Baker has approached the T. Remember, transportation was nowhere on the Republican’s agenda when he came into office in January 2015. Then, his first month, came snowmageddon, which crippled public transit and sent the region into gridlock.

Not long after, T GM Beverly Scott — a holdover from the Deval Patrick administration — abruptly resigned, taking with her three decades of transit experience. Previously, Scott had served as GM of the Atlanta, Sacramento, and Rhode Island transit systems.

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MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, here riding an Orange Line train in August, is leaving the position on Jan. 3, two days before Maura Healey’s inauguration as governor.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Sure, Baker has infused the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority with a record amount of money for repair and maintenance, but we’ve learned that what ails the system is more than just a lack of money.

Morale is low, and hiring has been a struggle. The chronic shortage of workers has forced the T to reduce bus and subway service. It’s not uncommon these days to wait 20 minutes for a Red Line car — even during rush hour.

“We’ve forgotten that the T is actually run every day by 7,000 people. Trains and buses and signals and track and power are just the equipment,” said Jim Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce who has been one of the T’s biggest critics. “All of that has to work, and it’s very important, but every day those 7,000 people have to decide that they’re going to deliver the service that needs to be delivered.”

Rooney understands the inner workings of the MBTA more than most people. He spent the first two decades of his career there, including a stint as interim GM.

What the staff needs, he added, is to feel “believed in ... that hasn’t changed since I left. It’s been lacking.”

Mary Skelton Roberts, who worked on transportation issues when she was co-director of the Barr Foundation’s Climate Program, said Healey should look to leaders who have run large transit systems, here in the US or internationally.

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Skelton Roberts, who is now a consultant on climate change and transportation, also would like to see a leader with longevity. She said Poftak — who served as a director of the MBTA control board for three years before becoming GM in 2019 — brought continuity to the role.

“Bringing in someone that’s willing to do this for a good seven to 10 years is what it’s going to take to get the system just operational,” she said. “Massachusetts’ transportation plan was significantly hampered by a number of factors, including COVID.”

A person walked up to a train at the Union Square MBTA station in August.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

But that’s not all. The new GM should commit to modernizing the T, and he and she can’t do this alone. “Running a successful transportation system will also require the new administration [to] put its full support behind that person,” added Skelton Roberts.

There are no shortage of names that have been floating around as potential candidates. Most notably, complete with a recent story in the New York Post, is Andy Byford, aka “Train Daddy,” who ran transit systems in New York City and London.

Another name: Rich Davey, who served as Patrick’s transportation secretary and now has Byford’s old job running subways and buses in New York City.

The top internal candidate, I hear, is Jeff Gonneville, who is the deputy GM. I wouldn’t be surprised if Baker names him as the interim when Poftak departs on Jan. 3, two days before Healey’s inauguration.

I doubt if Davey wants to come back; he just got to the Big Apple, and that’s a much bigger assignment. And I have my doubts about Byford, too. Boston might be too small for him, and why has it been so hard for him to keep a job the last few years?

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. My sense is that Healey is at the beginning stages of a search. She might have hinted at having a GM by the time she takes the reins, but she shouldn’t rush. Better to get this hire right.

Unlike Baker, Healey faces much higher expectations when it comes to finally fixing the T. It’s one of her two highest priorities as governor, along with creating more housing.

Finding the right leader for the MBTA will be Healey’s first big test. For the commuting public’s sake, she needs to ace it.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.