The MBTA serves as Boston’s subway, light rail, commuter rail, public bus, ferry, and paratransit service. The city is the biggest municipality in the T’s service zone, so the agency’s failures have an outsize impact on Bostonians. But for a while now, Boston hasn’t had a member of the T’s oversight board.
That’s set to change Monday when Mayor Michelle Wu will announce Mary Skelton Roberts as the city’s pick on the board.
Roberts will assume the newly created seat as “confidence in the system might be at an all-time low,” Wu said in an interview. Still, Roberts, a regular Orange Line and 39 bus rider, is optimistic about a T comeback as she joins the board most known for its inaction in recent years amid mounting safety crises.
“I think it’s really important to highlight if we get this right, what does the system look like? What does it deliver for people in terms of equity and access, for climate change?” she said. “I think it is not losing faith.”
Roberts is currently president of the upcoming Climate Beacon Conference and senior adviser to the Climate Beacon Project, a nonprofit committed to ensuring Massachusetts achieves an equitable energy transition.
She previously was senior vice president at the Energy Foundation, a charity where she oversaw grants aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Before that, she co-directed the Barr Foundation’s climate program where she managed grants for transportation, climate resilience, and land-use plans and projects, including the City of Boston’s Go Boston 2030 transportation planning process.
Roberts said she is “thrilled” about her new role on the board. Now, she said, is “really the time to lean in” to support public transit.
“The T deserves the time and attention that we’re going to give it, and if we do it well, we’re going to have an economy that’s even stronger, we’re going to have equity because people will be able to benefit from . . . the jobs that are all over the Commonwealth and all over the city,” she said. “And equally important, we have to address climate change, and you can’t do it without a functioning transit system.”
This summer, Boston launched a call for residents to submit suggestions for who they wanted to see occupy the new seat. Wu said more than 100 people provided feedback, including wish lists for things like extending the Orange Line, standardizing fares on the commuter rail, and improving signage.
“It just it goes to show how much public transit matters to our city and how many people in riding it every single day know exactly what would make it better,” Wu said. “We’re eager to make sure that we can help not only advance the big picture vision for how to grow public transit and improve it to where it should be as a system, but in the day-to-day to also . . . address concerns that immediately have impact as well.”
When former governor Charlie Baker created the Fiscal and Management Control Board to oversee the T in 2015, it did not include a seat for Boston. The current board formed by the Legislature in 2021 didn’t either.
Wu has for years campaigned to get Boston a seat on the MBTA board. As a city councilor in 2019, she wrote a Globe opinion piece calling for Boston and other municipalities to gain seats.
The MBTA received about $184 million from fees paid by local municipalities in the fiscal year that ended in June, according to the agency’s operating budget. Of the 176 municipalities in the MBTA service area, Boston contributed the most at around $94 million, according to figures provided by the MBTA Advisory Board.
Roberts’ seat is one of two new ones that was included in the state’s budget for the fiscal year that began this July, bringing the total to nine. The other one is a still-unfilled spot for someone to be appointed by Governor Maura Healey with “municipal government experience” in the T service area and “experience in transportation operations, transportation planning, housing policy, urban planning or public or private finance.”
In recent years, the board faced intense criticism from riders and transportation advocates about its hands-off oversight approach as the agency dramatically cut service and safety incidents continued unabated.
In April, Healey nixed three of Baker’s board members, including chair Betsy Taylor, and replaced them with her own appointments: Tom Glynn, former chief executive of Massport and former MBTA general manager; Tom McGee, a former state senator and former mayor of Lynn; and Eric Goodwine, a commercial banker. Three Baker appointees continue to serve on the board: Chanda Smart, a developer with OnyxGroup Development LLC; Robert Butler, president of the Northeast Regional Council of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; and Mayor Tom Koch of Quincy.
Wu said she is excited to see Roberts flex her knowledge about bus rapid transit systems around the world, and how transportation goes hand-in-hand with climate change and housing issues. She wants to see the T create a vision with near and long-term milestones that riders can rely on.
“People deserve to have a clearer sense of where we’re headed, and to know that we’re moving in the right direction toward the kind of system that we deserve,” she said.
Thursday’s board meeting will be Roberts’s first and the first for Acting Secretary of Transportation Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who took over the role when Gina Fiandaca stepped down earlier this month. Tibbits-Nutt previously served on the FMCB under Baker.