Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced that a longtime transportation-policy analyst and advocate of higher fuel taxes will oversee the state’s sprawling transportation bureaucracy.
Stephanie Pollack, who has worked for the past nine years at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, will take over as transportation secretary from Frank DePaola, who has held the post on an interim basis since November.
While Baker has said he does not plan to raise taxes, Pollack has been a frequent advocate for raising the state gasoline tax.
During a 2013 appearance on NECN, Pollack spoke in favor of then-Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to invest in the state’s transportation system through roughly $1 billion more in taxes and fees annually.
When host Jim Braude said that many people thought the plan unaffordable, Pollack replied, “Can’t afford not to do it right now.”
The Legislature later slimmed down Patrick’s plan, which included $900 million for other priorities, ultimately passing a $500 million tax package.
According to state campaign finance records, Pollack contributed financially to the political committee organized to thwart last year’s ballot question to repeal the state law tying future gas tax hikes to cost-of-living increases. Baker campaigned actively in favor of the measure, which ultimately passed.
She has also donated to liberal Democrats, including Mike Lake, who ran for lieutenant governor last year, and in 2010 to Patrick, who was running against Baker. And Pollack was a finalist to be Patrick’s first transportation secretary, according to people close to the former governor.
In naming Pollack, Baker fills one of his final vacant Cabinet posts. He has yet to name a replacement for public safety chief Andrea Cabral, who also is serving in an interim role.
Before Northeastern, Pollack worked at the Conservation Law Foundation, the environmental advocacy group that sued the state over the Big Dig. As part of the settlement, the state agreed to a series of mass transit projects, some of which have yet to be built.
Baker, during his work in Republican administrations of the 1990s, helped devise the financing plan for the Big Dig.
Pollack has also worked as a consultant to Massport and the Boston Transportation Department.
In a press release announcing the appointment, Baker said, “Stephanie’s vast experience in infrastructure and policy development will help our administration to be forward-thinking as we look for more innovative ways to meet the transportation needs in every region of the Commonwealth.”
Advocates for additional transportation spending applauded the choice.
Kristina Egan, executive director of Transportation For Massachusetts, said Pollack, who advises her organization, is unparalleled in her experience with the transportation system and the budget.
“When she looks at an issue like transportation funding, she dives deep into the numbers and she’ll tell you ‘We can save money here, and we’ll have to raise money over here’,” said Egan. “She’s very data-driven and she doesn’t sugarcoat the truth.”
Egan said Pollack’s research in subjects ranging from low-income riders in Western Massachusetts to the intersection of housing and transportation has given her a unique perspective on the transportation issues facing the Commonwealth.
“She’s able to work really productively with all different sorts of people, whether they’re in Western Massachusetts or they’re business groups, or they’re in low-income neighborhoods,” she said. “She has a tremendous span of contacts and good will.”
Jim Aloisi, who served as transportation secretary under Deval Patrick for less than a year, said he was heartened that Baker picked a transportation secretary whose positions may diverge from the governor’s own.
“It really underscores that Governor Baker meant it when he said that he was going to govern in a bipartisan manner,” he said. “It really underscores how, frankly, important substance is to this governor.”
Though Pollack may have some critics for her positions on the gas tax, Aloisi said he believes Pollack would be a “team player.”
But transportation watchers also said she will take on a thankless job at a challenging time. Former governor Michael S. Dukakis said serious infrastructure problems, the voters’ defeat of gas tax indexing, and lower gas prices will be key issues for Pollack.
“She and the governor and the Legislature are going to face a real challenge here, but I can’t think of a better time to try and provide additional resources,” he said.