Tough talk and personnel changes are fine, up to a point. But now, what’s the master plan for fixing this troubled agency? If there is one, it’s time to let the riding public in on it. As Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board frames it: “When is the honeymoon over for him [Eng] and the governor? If we’re not there now, we’re certainly real close.”
Kane is right. The thrill of occasionally getting to “genius” on The New York Times spelling bee, thanks to Orange Line slow zones, is waning. In Commonwealth Magazine, Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary and member of the TransitMatters board of directors, does a good job of explaining the battered psyche of the long-suffering T commuter. As he writes, he has tried to put long-percolating anger aside in favor of “watching the new Healey-Driscoll administration get its transportation sea legs, giving ample time to a new team at the MBTA to get a handle on the organization and develop a strong, actionable plan for the recovery of the T.” But patience has its limits and the T is pushing at them — hard.
This week, the Globe reported that the much-heralded Green Line extension — celebrated as “transformational” just last December by then-governor Charlie Baker — has a track problem that requires speed reductions to 3 miles per hour. I can walk at that pace, if not faster, and I just had hip replacement surgery.
Meanwhile, it feels like there’s a new headline almost every day about an unpleasant development on the T. It can range from inconvenience — slow zones and long waits between trains — to safety hazards within the system — a trash fire in a tunnel, a train derailment, a ceiling panel falling on a commuter’s head. Before Eng’s arrival, an Orange Line train caught on fire. There was a Red Line dragging death; and a malfunctioning escalator at the Back Bay station caused serious injuries. Deferred maintenance is part of the problem, but it doesn’t account for all that’s wrong. The Springfield factory that is assembling new Orange and Red line trains continually pushed back delivery dates. It got away with it for years, with no questions asked, or penalties imposed. Recent inspections of the new Green Line extension found tracks that are too close together, which can lead to derailments. Can the state, Somerville, and Cambridge get a refund for some of what they contributed to the $2.3 billion project? They should.
Meanwhile, federal regulators continue to call out the T for worker safety violations.
So far, the agency response most visible to the public has been the reshuffling of management deck chairs. Last week, Eng announced a personnel shakeup in which 16 senior executives were reassigned and at least two executives overseeing operations were demoted. Eng is certainly entitled to put together his own team, but it was hard to tell just how those changes would translate into better, safer service.
Kane, for one, said he has faith in them. He said Eng “has spent the last six months watching and figuring things out. Now he has put his people in place. There’s a new regime in town.” However, as Kane also points out, a new regime also means “careers upended” in the old one. Eng will have to manage any internal unhappiness connected to that, along with all the other problems he inherited when he started this job last April.
The T’s problems go back decades and of course Eng isn’t responsible for them. But now he’s the GM who is supposed to finally get public transit on track for success. Part of the problem is that when Healey pledged to fix the T, she did not put the huge challenge it will be in the context of its most recent history — the eight years of the Baker administration. Reluctant to offend voters who worship Baker no matter what his management failures or PR stunts, like shutting down the Orange Line for a month and saying it was fixed, Healey never held her predecessor accountable for any of it.
In a statement issued by a spokesperson, Eng said “Everyone knows that the condition of our infrastructure as it stands today did not occur overnight.” Meanwhile, the new leadership team “is the foundation that will challenge past practices and provide the necessary direction for our growing workforce to succeed,” he said.
In his CommonWealth magazine piece, Aloisi said he would like to see Eng hold a press conference in December, where he lays out a plan for 2024, including means and methods for eliminating slow zones, a schedule for station maintenance, and updates on the hiring of dispatchers, bus drivers, and operators — “in short, when and how a variety of visible, transparent performance metrics will be met.”
Sounds good. But why wait for December?
When Healey’s honeymoon ends, her ownership of all the T’s problems begin.