Richard Davey looking back, looking forward

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2011

Richard A. Davey, no longer the state transportation chief, says he is ready for a smaller project, perhaps in a startup.

By Nicole Dungca Globe Staff 

When Richard A. Davey heard that the weekend forecast included snow, he smiled for the first time in a long time, he said.

That’s because he is no longer responsible for making sure your snow-day travels are smooth.


As of Friday, Davey is no longer the state’s Department of Transportation secretary, stepping down to travel and hunt for a new job.

For this week’s column, I chatted with Davey during his last week on the job about his legacy as head of the MBTA and as transportation secretary, missed opportunities, and whether you should expect him to accost you if you try to skip out on paying your T fare.

Here are some of the questions he answered, edited for length.

Q. What kind of legacy do you feel you’re leaving behind with your time at the T and MassDOT? What are you most proud of?

A. I hope that we’ve left behind a legacy of reinstilling people’s faith in transportation. Certainly because of the Big Dig and because of some of our more difficult projects and failures in the past, I think Massachusetts citizens didn’t have faith in the transportation system or its bureaucracies to get stuff done.


And I think over the last three years, we’ve proven in a number of instances — whether it be projects or blizzards or storms, to making a persuasive case for additional resources — that the public can have confidence that transportation officials and all the men and women of MassDOT are working hard and are worthy of their trust.

Q. How were you able to accomplish that?

A. I think one thing is just being totally transparent. When something went wrong, we said it went wrong. When it was time to apologize, I stood and apologized, and then explained to folks how we were going to fix something. I have found the public to be very forgiving if you tell them what the problem is and how you are going to fix it, and you hold yourself responsible.

People don’t expect perfection, and I think often in government we’re not willing to admit that. I think at the DOT, we were.

Obviously, we’ve had a number of successes, from the Fast 14 program and shutting the Callahan Tunnel down, to visible improvements like the real-time countdown signs.

It’s not just the big projects. It’s the little things that matter as much as the big things for people.


Q. Were there any initiatives that you weren’t able to get to?

A. Sure, about a 100,000 things. (laughs) Certainly, what I’ve learned in government is that the work is never done. I would have loved to have completed the post office transaction to expand South Station, but that’s working and that’s moving forward.

I would have liked to see South Coast rail under construction, and we didn’t get quite there yet.

I would have loved to award the Red and Orange line cars contract five years ago, but we couldn’t do that. (Note: Last month, MassDOT awarded a contract for new subway cars for the two MBTA lines to a Chinese company, CNR MA).

I’m hopeful that the next administration will, frankly, see the wisdom of a lot of things we’ve been doing and continue them.

Q. There are obviously a lot of barriers to big changes in public transit, such as costs and politics. But in an ideal world, what are some of the changes you want to see in 5 years, 10 years, 25 years?

A. Certainly a few things: completion of a lot of longstanding projects that have been talked about for decades, the Green Line extension being among them.

I think, frankly, a little more creativity from advocates and stakeholders. Often I’ve heard people tell me about projects that have been on the drawing board for 20 to 25 years. It’s easy to get stuck in projects that were conceived of 25 years ago as continuing to be necessary, rather than thinking more creatively about how we use our transportation services today — whether that be looking at DMUs [self-propelled diesel multiple units] or bus rapid transit in the future, versus the tried and true urban ring or north-south rail link. We seem to fall back on ideas from 25 years ago.

That’s one. I think two is, embracing the new technologies and new providers: Uber and Bridj and Lyft. I mean, I see those as critical to improved transportation in Massachusetts, and we need to find a way to encourage those kinds of services.

Government doesn’t have all the answers — that, I also know from four years in government.

In terms of what the future can bring, rather than having a patchwork of transportation services, we need to decide if we want to invest in transit services — or are we going to continue what I would argue to be an unsustainable legacy toward single-occupancy vehicles?

Q. You mentioned that you may look into startups for your next career move. What are you interested in?

A. A startup is interesting because, having run and managed really big companies or big agencies, there’s a bit of an attraction to going to something small, maybe a little more entrepreneurial, and with a new energy, if you will.

It could be in transportation, could be in mobility, the tech space or maybe retail. I don’t think people think about this job as being retail, but between the T and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, it’s a pretty large retail and customer service reach.

Q. One of the biggest projects for the MBTA going forward will be the new cars for the Red and Orange lines. We’ve talked a bit about how this will be CNR’s first foray into manufacturing American railcars. Why should the public not be worried, after watching what happened with Hyundai Rotem?

A. They’re the largest rail manufacturer in the world. They’re building high-speed trains. And in due respect to our subway cars, they’re building trains that go 235 miles an hour — it’s a little more complicated.

I think we feel very confident in their ability to deliver an on-time and quality product. And we’ve seen it in other countries. Certainly, in China they’ve produced a lot, but they’re also building for other countries that have similar sort of systems and expectations that we do: New Zealand, Australia, Argentina are examples.

We sent our engineers over to their manufacturing plant. We were impressed, but it’s going to take a lot of oversight and a continued push from our mechanical engineering team to make sure they’re delivered on time and quality cars.

Q. When I heard about you stopping a fare scofflaw on the T in 2010, I had to search the Internet for the video. Even though you will no longer head the agency, can we expect you to be performing such security on the T in the future?

A.(laughs) Well, I can’t be a rogue-fare-evader stopper out there, but what I will probably do — like I did before, at the end of that video — is offer to pay that guy’s fare. I feel pretty strongly that we have a lot of customers who are paying, so that will probably be my tactic in the future — and not get into any bodily harm.

Q. Anything else to tell the readers of Starts & Stops?

A. Please tell them that being GM and secretary has been a gift, really. Public service is a gift, and thank them all for their engagement. I look forward to seeing them out there just as a rider now, as well.

Q. But they need to pay.

A. Right, they do need to pay, however. And I’m not going to pay all their fares.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at
Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.