Baker creates panel to examine MBTA
Recommendations from experts due by end of March
Governor Charlie Baker took ownership of the problems facing the state’s embattled transit system, empaneling a committee of experts to examine the operations of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and present recommendations next month to improve the agency.
“In order to fix the problems at the MBTA, they must first be diagnosed,’’ Baker said at a Friday news conference. “Let me be clear: We cannot continue to do the same thing and expect a different result.”
The announcement of the commission came as the MBTA’s subway system is slowly returning to normal after weeks of shutdowns and limited service amid record amounts of snow, and as the commuter rail continues to limp along, operating without a third of the locomotives necessary for regular service.
Though similar commissions have been convened twice over the last decade — primarily to look into the T’s finances — Baker insists this panel will take a different tack by formulating a list of practical recommendations in a relatively short period of time. He has given the panel a deadline of the end of March.
A spokesman for the T said that the agency would work with the governor “to achieve the shared goal of providing transit riders with services that are reliable, safe, and accessible.”
Some transportation watchers say they are cautiously optimistic that the commission will be able to spur change.
Jim Aloisi, a former transportation secretary who was a member of the 2007 transportation finance commission, said he doesn’t see Baker’s panel as a repeat of the past.
“Thank God the governor didn’t decide to appoint another transportation finance commission, because we’ve been commissioned to death,” he said. “What we need is what he gave us, which is a very quick, agile, and informed approach to getting the solutions that we need.”
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the panel’s charge is not to examine why the MBTA collapsed under the onslaught of snow.
“This panel has been asked to address the larger problems, not the immediate cause of what happened this winter, but the deeper causes, the root causes,’’ she said.
The seven-member advisory group, made up of local and national leaders in transportation and urban planning, has been tasked with looking closely into the T’s finances, operations, and maintenance from past years, and will suggest ways for the system to move forward.
The advisory group includes well-respected national and local officials, including Jane Garvey, former head of the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Highway Administration leader; Katherine Lapp, former executive director of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who now works at Harvard University; and Paul Barrett, former Boston Redevelopment Authority director, who will serve as chair.
After Baker introduced him at a news conference, Barrett said he spent two days riding the Red Line talking to employees who want to see system up and running smoothly again.
“Hopefully we’ll bring some answers to them about a brighter future and a more motivated workforce that can help really deliver the 21st-century system that we all want to have and rely on going forward,” he said.
The MBTA has made progress restoring service after another weekend snowstorm buried exposed tracks and rail beds. On Friday, the T reopened sections of the Green and Red lines, and put the highest number of subway cars in service for the first time since Feb 9.
T officials have said that the entire Braintree branch of the Red Line and the B branch of the Green Line will reopen by Monday.
Keolis, the commuter rail operator, plans to run only limited service next week, as workers replace motors on trains and thaw frozen switches. For weeks, canceled trains have stranded commuters packing North and South stations, and state officials have expressed concerns about the company’s plans to rebound from the storms.
“We had an honest meeting with the Keolis folks, and we’re waiting for them to hand us their recovery and communications plan,’’ Pollack said.
Keolis spokesman Mac Daniel declined to comment on the governor’s panel, which will also be looking at the commuter rail, but said the company has been working closely with Baker’s staff and the T.
In recent weeks, Baker, a Republican who took office in January, and his staff have made efforts to be more engaged with the transit system.
Baker said his management staff has been working closely with officials from the T and Keolis, including two meetings with Keolis officials on Wednesday.
Previously, Baker said he received most of his information on the MBTA from Pollack. The governor met MBTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott only last week, after he’d publicly criticized the system’s performance, and after her surprise resignation announcement.
Transportation advocates such as Aloisi said this could be an “opportunity moment” for the T, now that the transit system’s shortcomings have been revealed in a way that is impossible to ignore.
State Representative Bill Straus, a cochair of the joint committee on transportation, said he is looking forward to a serious examination of the T, particularly how it handles maintenance.
“What I’m hoping for most of all are that there would be recommendations to a regular and consistent ‘state of good repair’ programs,” said Straus, a Democrat. “Unfortunately, a series of governors – and I’m not picking on any one – have not paid attention to it.”
Rick Dimino, the executive director of A Better City, a group that promotes improvements in transportation and other services, said he hopes the panel’s recommendations will take into account the need for revenue, despite the governor’s no-tax pledge.
“This commission’s credibility, I think, will be on the line if they’re not talking about revenues, as well,” Dimino said. “And hopefully the governor will be open-minded toward taking recommendations in that regard.”