The state transportation board voted unanimously Monday to name Beverly A. Scott, head of Atlanta’s transit system, as the next MBTA general manager. Scott, aggressively courted by state officials, will be the first woman and the second African-American leader of the T, arriving at a time of record ridership, as well as financial uncertainty.
Scott, a former university professor who has spent 35 years in public transit, will leave Atlanta after five years and take a 30 percent pay cut to come to Boston. Now 61 and a widowed grandmother, Scott said she was not looking for new employment after announcing last winter that she would step down from MARTA, Atlanta’s transit agency, after her contract expires in December 2012.
“I really am not looking for a job,” Scott insisted, beginning a colorful, two-hour interview Monday, mixing homespun aphorisms with a command of policy while gesturing freely with fingernails painted a deep purple. “I honestly thought MARTA was my last one,” she said.
Instead, Scott will lead the nation’s fifth-largest transit system and its oldest subway and preside over the campaign to reinvest in the widely used, but financially strained T. The job had sat vacant for more than a year, after Governor Deval Patrick promoted Richard A. Davey to transportation secretary.
Scott will earn $220,000 annually in a three-year contract to be finalized soon, probably taking effect in December.
A nationwide search for a general manager for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority drew 106 applicants and resulted in an unusual scenario, with the two finalists being the top executives with Atlanta’s transit agency.
In runner-up Dwight Ferrell, officials said they found a skilled, nuts-and-bolts administrator who had risen from bus driver to operations chief at several large agencies. But in Scott, Ferrell’s boss, they said they found someone of vision and experience.
“Dr. Scott is one of the preeminent transportation leaders in this country, and while I think Mr. Ferrell is ready, I resoundingly support Dr. Scott,” said Ferdinand Alvaro, a corporate lawyer and one of seven members of the recently reconstituted board overseeing transportation in Massachusetts.
Scott has served at high levels for several transportation agencies, including in Washington and New York, and has run systems in Providence and Sacramento.
She holds a doctorate in political science from Howard University. Of her career transition, she said, “I was minding my business teaching government and public affairs at Tennessee State University as a young person, and one thing led to another.”
Chosen in 1977 for a Carnegie Foundation fellowship, she was given an 18-month opportunity to work with the city of Houston. In an era when women and people of color were often steered toward “relations” — public relations, neighborhood relations — Scott was determined to do something else.
“I wanted to be in sanitation or transportation, because I knew we were always going to be moving people, and I figured that we would always be moving trash,” she said. She got transportation; she never looked back.
Facing the teeth of a recession in car-centric Georgia, Scott led a broad and robust, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to raise taxes for transit. And she became known as the “Red X woman” — as federal transit administrator Peter Rogoff described her during a 2010 forum in Boston — for starkly illustrating potential cuts by painting X’s on buses plying routes marked for elimination.
When cuts were necessary, Scott presided over hundreds of layoffs and trimmed 40 of 131 bus routes. But through community input and strategic planning, the agency maintained 86 percent of its service coverage, she told the T board.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, a voice for the 175 cities and towns served by the T, called Scott “one of the stars” of public transit.
“She understands and can communicate how important it is to have a working transit system, because of its impact not just on mobility [but also] economic development and the culture of a place,” Regan said.
A screening committee of Davey and two board members chose 10 finalists to question by phone, inviting three to Boston for public interviews and private vetting. One dropped out, leaving Scott and Ferrell. Six of 10 finalists were women or people of color, objectives for the Patrick administration in filling one of the highest-profile government positions, board chairman John R. Jenkins said.
The position is also one of the most challenging. Davey likened it to managing the Red Sox, asking Scott if she knew of Terry Francona, the celebrated-and-then-deposed Sox skipper. She did not. But she impressed the board with her answer to a question about the looming 2013 Beacon Hill debate over transportation finance, which could make the coming years what Davey called a “renaissance or a rollback” for the T.
“I’m a person, if you knock me down two times, I get up three, but we don’t want a knockdown,” said Scott, adding that she would lead a taut agency positioned for a renaissance while prepared for a rollback.
Though Scott is taking a cut from her $315,000 salary, she will make more than the $145,000 Davey earned as general manager or the $150,000 he collects now.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.