Can Phillip Eng be the Ted Lasso of Boston public transit? Can the latest general manager of the MBTA make us believe in the T?
Before that can happen, Eng must overcome a lot of cynicism and frustration about the current transit system.
The good news: You now know how long it will take for the next train to arrive at your station. The bad news: The next train is usually at least 20 minutes away. That’s my experience on the Orange Line, where I am a regular rider from Oak Grove to Haymarket or State Street, depending on the weather. The long wait in-between trains usually means a tightly packed ride on the way home. And once aboard, whether heading into Boston or out of it, there can be stretches so slow that I can sometimes get to “genius” on The New York Times spelling bee app before I reach my destination.
The worst part is the feeling that no one at the T cares. For too long, this agency seemed to delight in keeping riders in the dark about the system’s true problems and to almost chuckle at the inconvenience caused by them. From late trains to derailed ones, T management — reflecting the attitude of state political leaders — seemed to accept the “Will he ever return?” culture immortalized by the ancient Kingston Trio song, long after the joke ceased to be funny.
Reaction to the most serious incidents seemed flat, whether it involved the tragedy of the Boston University professor who died after falling through the rusty steps of a staircase that should have been removed long ago; the man who was dragged to his death after his arm was caught in the door of a Red Line car; or the Orange Line car that caught fire in August. After the image of commuters jumping out of that train made the national news, then-governor Charlie Baker shut down the Orange Line for a month to fix the tracks. Yet there are still slowdowns. Why?
Changing the perception of the T as an unresponsive, uncaring bureaucracy that ducks public accountability is at the heart of the challenge faced by Eng. Hopefully he gets that. When he took over as president of the Long Island Rail Road five years ago and was asked what would be the first issue he would focus on, he said: “The first thing is really communication. Riders feel like they haven’t been heard. They also want real-time communication from us, not only with our daily service but also on incidents, the status of the incident, and the actual cause of the incident.”
That’s certainly true at the T. While it’s important to know what’s happening, a sense of urgency about fixing issues is also crucial. Supporters like Tom Glynn, a onetime general manager of the MBTA who also ran Massport, believe Eng can turn things around. “He’s solid, not fancy. He’s an engineer. He wants to fix the problems. I think that’s what we need,” said Glynn.
Eng has an engineering degree and 40 years of experience in public transportation. In 2017, he took over running the Long Island Rail Road after a report by the New York state comptroller said it was providing the worst on-time performance in 18 years. When he left, he was credited with leaving the LIRR with the best on-time performance in its history and leading the way on a project to expand service.
According to Glynn, Eng was “famous for going to the train station, standing on the platform, and talking to people.” In addition to restoring the public’s faith in the T, Glynn said it’s important to restore the T’s belief in itself. Added Glynn, that means “holding onto people who are good, recruiting new people, and having a management system people can believe in.”
What will it take to deliver a public transit system for Massachusetts that riders can believe in?
▪ A commitment to transparency. Since Governor Maura Healey took over in January, there has been more of that, but years of obfuscation, if not outright deception, have greatly reduced the T’s credibility.
▪ Enough money to address and fix capital issues that for years have gone neglected.
▪ The whole truth about what’s really going on at the Springfield factory that’s way behind on the production of new Orange and Red line cars.
▪ Buy-in from current T employees about the need for a culture overhaul.
▪ An oversight board that actually provides oversight.
▪ Business and political leaders who are invested in the T. That means riding it or at least talking regularly to people who do.
It will take much more than a “Believe” sign, like the one put up by the fictional Ted Lasso to motivate AFC Richmond, to fix the MBTA. And Eng can’t do it alone. He needs Healey and the rest of the state’s political leadership behind him.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.