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New in office, Baker tested by MBTA woes

Governor Charlie Baker has repeatedly said more money is not the answer to all the state’s problems. But just weeks into the job, the MBTA’s winter woes have posed a sharp test:

Can the no-new-taxes governor manage his way out of a transportation crisis some analysts say will require billions in new spending?

Baker, so far, is sticking by his pledge of fiscal restraint. “We need to start from the premise the taxpayers have been taxed enough,” he said, speaking to reporters at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Later, in an interview with the Globe, he doubled down, questioning some public transit expenditures and suggesting the MBTA needs to spend its money more wisely before lawmakers even consider further spending.

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But David D’Alessandro, the former John Hancock chief executive who spearheaded a wide-ranging review of the MBTA for former Governor Deval Patrick, said management fixes will only go so far, blaming the agency’s problems on years of underfunding by the state Legislature.

“Warren Buffett could be the MBTA chief right now, it wouldn’t make a difference,” he said. “The people that caused this problem, they’re sitting under the golden dome.”

The storms, and the chronic transit issues they have laid bare, have proved to be a tricky political problem for Baker. As the public fumes about the MBTA’s delayed and suspended service, the governor has repeatedly registered his disappointment with the agency’s performance.

But he has also sought to put some distance between himself and an operation he does not directly control; a seven-member transportation board, dominated by Patrick’s appointees, oversees the MBTA.

“The board was, and is, made up of his appointments,” Baker said, in the Globe interview, referring to his predecessor. “There are a lot of boards in state government that have real meaning and significance. And that’s one of them.”

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Members of the board are appointed to staggered, four-year terms. Two members will complete their terms in September, one in the fall of 2016, two more in 2017, and another in 2018. The seventh member of the board is the governor’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack.

The slow turnover could complicate any efforts to make big changes at the MBTA. But Patrick demonstrated that the state’s chief executive can take aggressive action to overhaul the agency.

In 2009, Patrick forced out MBTA general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas over the objections of the House speaker, the Senate president, and the mayor of Boston. And three years later, he pushed an overhaul of the transit agency’s board through the state Legislature.

Baker, while insisting the T must do better, has steered clear of directly criticizing its chief, Beverly Scott. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he noted the historic snowfall and said: “I know that many of the people at the T have been working 24/7 for the past two weeks to keep as much of that system operational as possible. And I would include, absolutely, the general manager in my commentary on that.”

Scott has proven a feisty defender of the MBTA. In an animated news conference of her own Tuesday, she reiterated her argument that the T’s problems are about lack of investment, not failures in leadership.

“I’m truly unimportant in this,” she said, arguing that even “God Jr.” could not do the job without adequate resources. “What happened here, it would have taken anybody down.”

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Both Baker and Scott said Tuesday they have never spoken directly during the crisis.

The governor and Pollack, his transportation secretary, are scheduled to meet with the MBTA chief Thursday. They will discuss, among other things, the agency’s plans to get through the next couple of winters before it starts deploying new cars on the Orange and Red lines, whose outdated equipment has been blamed for many of commuters’ woes this week.

Over the years, there have been many diagnoses of the T’s problems. The 2009 report prepared for the Patrick administration, with ominous subtitles such as “the outlook is bleak” and “a Faustian bargain”, found that the Legislature’s 2000 attempt to overhaul T funding had failed, underestimating rising health care and utility costs, for instance.

On Tuesday, D’Alessandro said addressing the funding shortfall will be critical. “Do I think it can be done without a rise in fees or taxes?” he asked. “Not a chance.”

Former state inspector general Gregory Sullivan, who is research director at the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, took a different tack in a 2013 report on the agency’s bus maintenance program, arguing that a state law essentially blocking outsourcing of the work, among other issues, had led to ballooning costs.

“The MBTA is a very union-controlled, plodding agency,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not market-driven.”

The T, he said, has focused too much on expansion and not enough on the maintenance of existing infrastructure: “Rather than expanding the system, it would be more prudent to have the equipment necessary” for winter weather and other contingencies.

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Baker, in his interview with the Globe Tuesday, made a similar argument, referencing the Department of Transportation’s agreement to purchase freight rail tracks that will allow for expanded commuter rail service to Foxborough.

“Why is the Department of Transportation, why is the T, buying a $25 million spur to Foxborough when we obviously have real issues with our existing infrastructure that’s associated with things like switches and heating systems and all the rest?” he wondered aloud.

Nicole Duncga of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg
@globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe