Baker should remake transportation board
Charlie Baker has just taken an ax to the Health Connector board. Will the state transportation board be next?
After the disastrous performance of our public transit system, members of the MassDOT board must feel like they have targets on their backs. Baker has only one appointee, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack; the rest are Deval Patrick holdovers.
But Baker — as much as he probably would like to — isn’t remaking the seven-member board overnight. He’s going to wait for recommendations from his newly created T commission, which will report to him in a month.
Now, nothing prevents board members from handing in their resignations en masse. So I asked chair John Jenkins if the Patrick appointees should call it quits before they embarrass themselves any more. They are, after all, the ones who approved MBTA budgets, signed off on expansion versus maintenance, and awarded the commuter rail contract to a French company that acts like it has never seen snow before.
Jenkins, who has been on the board since 2009, said he has not heard anyone calling for their heads, just talk of installing an oversight group to monitor MBTA finances.
Unless there’s public demand for resignations, Jenkins said, he won’t even entertain the idea. In his mind, the board, which includes Zipcar founder Robin Chase, MIT civil engineering professor Andrew Whittle, and union leader Janice Loux, is not the problem.
“The credentials of the members of the board are impeccable,” said Jenkins, an early Patrick supporter who owns a Dorchester insurance agency. “I am really proud and happy to serve with them.”
Does the board feel a tinge of responsibility for how poorly the T performed this winter?
“Even if we had all new equipment, we were going to have issues,” said Jenkins, who blamed the record snowfall for crippling the T.
“Our riding public has an expectation that maybe the only thing that can run, what I can count on, is public transportation. . . . I don’t think it was a realistic expectation.”
That being said, Jenkins knows the MBTA could have done better.
“We are not proud of what our performance was,” he said. “We were just overwhelmed like other modes of transportation.”
The big difference, of course, is most other modes — from Logan Airport to the highways — recovered much faster. Our transit system acted like the helpless old lady in the TV commercial, wincing that “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
Jenkins in an hourlong phone conversation this week, said T officials should have realized sooner that they were in over their heads as the wintry blasts of snow kept piling up.
“It was clearly an instance of overpromising,” Jenkins said.
What has been particularly abysmal is commuter rail, which continues to run on a reduced schedule and experience delays. Last week, Baker let the commuter rail company Keolis have it, saying he was “done with excuses.” On Thursday, the governor met with the Keolis international CEO to iron out a recovery schedule. The headline: The system won’t be fully back until March 30.
By now, I wondered if Jenkins had any regrets about the board’s decision last year to switch the commuter rail contract to Keolis.
“I wouldn’t call it a regret,” he said. “Keolis has not performed to any of our expectations on where they would be at this time. I am not making any excuses for Keolis, either.”
But then, he sort of did. “Clearly, nobody expected 100 inches of snow,” he added. “We have to make some allowance for that.”
I started to sense a theme here. Perhaps Jenkins thought our public transit system was just fine, except for during the occasional blizzard. Maybe Baker’s call for a commission and all this handwringing over what’s wrong with T are overreactions.
No, he thinks it’s all good. “It might be a catalyst to action,” Jenkins said of the furor.
He wants Baker’s panel to do something about the T’s debt. Nearly a quarter of the operating budget goes to pay off its loans. Imagine if that money could be put towards upgrading infrastructure instead. “That alone would go a huge way to allowing us to get modern reliable transportation,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins also hopes the commission will recognize that no matter how you cut it, the system needs an infusion of funds. Overexpansion isn’t why the T is flailing, he explained. It’s the fact that it’s old and in need of major investment.
“Anybody who says we don’t need money, they are in denial,” he said.
By the end of the conversation, I couldn’t help but feel the board is in denial, too. If Baker is going to take ownership of the problems of the T, he needs to take control of the wheel. He’ll be getting a new T general manager -- and he should get his own board, too.