Who should be the next general manager of the MBTA?
Generically speaking — it should be someone with hands-on experience running a transit system. It should be someone who will focus, first, on the nuts and bolts of daily operations, and make sure the trains and buses run safely, reliably, and, as James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, points out, more frequently than the current 15-minute wait times. It should be someone who understands the importance of team building and the need to boost morale in an organization sorely in need of uplift and inspiration. It should be someone who knows how to communicate regularly and honestly with the riding public. It should be someone who recognizes the specific challenges facing the T, from safety concerns to labor union constraints, but is not captive to the same old thinking about what is possible or not.
And most important, it should be someone in whom Governor-elect Maura Healey has absolute trust to be the T’s hands-on, day-to-day manager — so much so, that she will never throw them under the bus (or train, or ferry, or paratransit vehicle ... ). That will bring stability where there has been churn, which is crucial for a transit system under so much internal and external pressure.
Finding that person — and convincing them to take the job — won’t be easy. But it’s critical to Greater Boston’s economic health.
As reported by CommonWealth Magazine, preliminary October ridership numbers for subways, buses, and commuter rail lines are roughly 54 percent of pre-COVID levels. This is an increase from the first quarter, when ridership was about half of what it was prior to COVID. (The first quarter covers July, August, and September and includes the shutdown of the Orange Line from Aug. 19 to Sept. 19.) Ridership generates revenue, which is of course important to the T’s financial health, but it also reflects the public’s attitude toward the public transit system. “The T’s financial numbers aren’t rosy, but the bigger concern is the lack of riders. Are they staying away because of safety concerns, or are they staying home because COVID has changed the way businesses operate? Or some combination of both?” asks CommonWealth. The answers to those questions are something state transportation leaders need to figure out.
According to a recent survey done for the Boston Business Journal by SL Insight, the T’s ongoing problems, highlighted by a scathing federal audit which led to the monthlong shutdown of the Orange Line, are affecting worker recruitment and retention. About one-third of 100 business leaders surveyed said that perceptions about reliability made it harder to find and keep quality employees. More than one-quarter of those business leaders said they reduced the number of days employees are required to come into work because of reliability concerns about the T. According to the survey, area business leaders also believe that Boston’s public transit system does not measure up to those of other major cities.
Perception is reality. However, while the T’s reputation may now be tainted by the indelible image of an Orange Line train on fire and the service shutdown that followed, Massachusetts has been an exporter of some transportation talent, from the 1970s to more recent times. For example, Rich Davey, who served as transportation secretary under then-Governor Deval Patrick, is currently running New York City’s transit system. Randy Clarke, who worked at the T for six years and left in 2016 as deputy chief operating manager, is now GM and CEO of the Washington metro system. James O’Leary, who served as GM from 1981 to 1989, is now president of ACI, one of the largest US-based private operators of passenger rail service.
O’Leary, the longest serving GM and the rare one whose tenure is hailed as a success, benefitted from the full backing of then-Governor Michael Dukakis. And that’s what the next GM needs from Healey.
After finding the right person for the job, it is equally important to give that person what they need to do the job. That means providing enough money to modernize the T and run it as efficiently as possible. After picking the GM, the next biggest challenge will be to hire some 2,000 people to fill vacancies current and anticipated, a mission that is easier said than done. “People don’t want to go to the neighborhood barbecue and say they work at the T,” said a person who knows the culture and is involved in the effort to find new leadership.
What is also crucial is to give the next GM managerial independence and freedom from political interference. That is key to reestablishing trust and getting the public back on public transit.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.