Business

shirley leung

Ruckus over fixing MBTA is all about control

Forgive me readers. I’m about to get fired up about fiscal control boards. Stick with me here.

Even my editors are wincing at the mere thought, but these are desperate times for Charlie Baker’s proposed reform of the MBTA. His bold plan is enduring so much enemy fire that it risks stalling out like a commuter rail car imbibing its first blast of wintry air.

The fiscal control board has become an unlikely flash point in the fight between the governor and the Legislature over fixing our transit system. You’re probably scratching your head on how such an eye-glazing entity could elicit so much emotion.

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Here’s a clue: It’s all about control. Who has it, and who doesn’t.

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In this case, the administration wants to transfer power from the state transportation board to a new five-member board that would oversee the public transit system, from balancing its budget to prioritizing repairs. The logic: The T is in so much trouble a separate board should manage it. The control board would be in place three to five years, and afterward oversight of the T would be transferred back to the transportation board.

Sounds reasonable enough, until you realize the Legislature claims to have been fixing the T for a while — and they think they’ve got this. (Just don’t remind them what happened this past winter.) The fiscal control board has been decried as an excessive layer of bureaucracy. Now, both the House speaker, Bob DeLeo, and the Senate president, Stan Rosenberg, wonder what kind of authority the board really has.

Translation: Lawmakers are worried the board would get special powers to curb the antiprivatization law, limit binding arbitration provisions, and lift the cap on fares.

Baker officials insist the control board would have the same exact authority as the current transportation panel, and that only the Legislature could make it more powerful.

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Meanwhile, the House in its proposed budget has agreed to suspend the state law that limits privatizing public services.

To test how committed the administration is to the control board, I asked the state’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, if she would be OK if the board didn’t have special powers.

To my surprise, she said yes.

“As a starting point, a control board without additional powers would be an important tool in helping us fix the T,” she said. “It would send a signal we are serious.”

Wow, the Baker administration is as wonky as I thought it was.

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A control board that possesses the same powers as the state transportation board feels rather mundane, but Pollack argues that the missing piece in T reform has been good governance. Control boards have helped troubled municipalities and school systems find their financial footing and improve their operations.

A control board ‘has the intensity and energy of the private sector with the public meeting quality of the public sector.’ --Chris Gabrieli, education advocate

Under this scenario, the only “super power” is the ability of the control board to focus like a laser on the problems of the T. The state transportation board, by comparison, has to worry about everything from maintaining bridges and highways to small airports. The control board would also meet weekly, as opposed to the transportation board’s monthly gatherings.

“The control board seems to be the linchpin,” Pollack said.

The administration modeled this new T board after the one put in place in Springfield a decade ago. By most accounts, the control board succeeded in putting the city government back on its feet and eliminating its deficit.

The uneasiness that surrounds control boards comes from the fact they often have to make tough — and unpopular — decisions.

“Control boards put a lot of ‘light of day’ on stuff,” said Chris Gabrieli, the venture capitalist turned education advocate who served as chairman of the Springfield finance control board.

Gabrieli said the control board, with the right people, can be effective. “It has the intensity and energy of the private sector with the public meeting quality of the public sector,” he said.

For now, DeLeo isn’t sold on the idea of a separate board to oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, but he’s keeping an open mind. “The governor may be completely right on this,” DeLeo told me. “If he or the secretary can convince me that this will make a major difference, then so be it.”

If only it were that simple. Why wouldn’t the Legislature want a board whose only job is to fix the T? Instead, it will probably come down to who gets — and gives up — control.

Let’s hope it gets resolved by the first snowflake.

RELATED COVERAGE:

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Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.