By all rights, snow disasters are supposed to be the unmaking of government careers. Which makes Beverly Scott’s surge in popularity this week about as surprising as a week without a blizzard might be.
The MBTA general manager is leaving, but she certainly isn’t going quietly. In her dramatic press conference earlier this week, she fiercely defended herself and her staff and established hers as a refreshing voice in this dreary season.
Even longtime observers of the state’s political battles were left a bit in awe.
“I think it was a demonstration of a person who was at the peak of frustration and doing her level best to engage people in her own unique and colorful way about what the problem is and how difficult it is to solve it,” said former transportation secretary James Aloisi. “It was nothing like the buttoned-up style Boston is used to.”
Even as Scott won kudos for her down-home candor and for speaking truth to power, many people, especially on social media, seemed surprised when she resigned. But why? She couldn’t have made it any more clear that she was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Governor Charlie Baker, who had called her agency’s performance “unacceptable,” hadn’t even met with her. Scott looked like a person who had decided that she was going to leave on her own terms. Which, in this case, means she is going to depart in April, after guiding the system through what’s left of this miserable winter.
Scott submitted her resignation shortly after the MBTA board gave her a unanimous vote of confidence. She’d made her point.
Of course, by telling the truth about the transit system at the expense of her superiors — instead of meekly taking the fall — Scott violated a major precept of government. Good for her for not caring. The MBTA is, in fact, a decrepit agency relying on equipment that should have been mothballed years ago. No knowledgeable person, Baker included, could claim to be surprised that it hasn’t been up to the challenge of the winter of ’15. Baker and Scott finally met Thursday, in a meeting later described by both sides as cordial and productive.
There’s surprisingly little consensus about what — besides a ton of money — it will take to actually fix the T. Obviously it needs new equipment, but a significant upgrade will take years. Both the Red and Orange lines have new cars on order, but they won’t actually reach Massachusetts for several more years. Almost everything that would help will take both investment and political will and there has been precious little of either on Beacon Hill where public transit is concerned. The short-term prognosis for the T is grim.
Then again, there’s something to be said for finally having to face the consequences of our chronically lousy public transportation system. For the first time in a while, there’s a real debate about fixing it. And there’s an appreciation of why it matters. It never should have taken so much misery to make us realize how desperately people rely on the T and the commuter rail.
I was briefly stranded in South Station a couple of storms ago. As announcement after announcement urged riders to seek “alternate means of transportation,” a fed-up commuter finally shouted, “This is my alternate means of transportation!” She was representative of the people with whom Scott has struck a nerve.
For years, our leaders have crossed their fingers and hoped that our patched-together transit system could hang on — or that some faceless bureaucrat could be blamed for its failures. This week that bureaucracy has a face, and the public has rallied around her.
All Beverly Scott really did was tell the truth. Fascinating what a novel concept that can be in state government.