Governor’s panel calls for a new MBTA oversight board
A special panel appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, citing pervasive organizational failures at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, has called for the creation of a new board to temporarily oversee the beleaguered agency.
The group’s report, released Wednesday, also opens the door to fare hikes to shore up the T’s bottom line, drawing sharp criticism from public transit advocates.
The scathing study calls on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, which oversees the T, to resign en masse, allowing Baker to name replacements. The reconstituted board would still oversee some transportation functions, but would yield oversight of the T to a new “fiscal and management control board” for the next three to five years.
That board would be charged with imposing discipline on what the report describes as a dysfunctional agency that lacks “a culture of performance management and accountability” and has allowed costs to grow unchecked.
“The people of Massachusetts deserve a well-managed, well-run, cost-effective transit system,” said Baker, with members of the panel at a news conference. “Unfortunately, this report indicates that right now, they do not have one.”
The release of the full report Wednesday came after days of leaks that highlighted management failures at the MBTA. The Baker administration has made it clear that the governor is more interested in better management and organizational changes, at the moment, than new revenue for the agency.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, in comments to reporters Wednesday, endorsed the governor’s approach. “No question at some point there will have to be discussion about the money,” he said. “But more importantly, before we get into that, I think we really have to talk about the functioning of the T and money being wasted.”
Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg struck a more critical tone. He said, in a statement, that he supported the governor’s push for a more “customer-centric” and “cost-effective” T. But he suggested improving management and selling more T property for development, as the report suggests, will only go so far.
“One thing is clear,” he said. “After reforming the T’s structural issues and shaking the trees for new forms of [internal] revenue, the T will still be struggling under debts and deficits, and we need to keep that in mind as we try to find the right path forward for the T’s sustainability.”
Several of the panel’s recommendations, such as creating a fiscal control board and lifting a cap on MBTA fare hikes, would require legislative approval.
The recently imposed cap limits fare increases to 5 percent every two years. Public transit advocates say it has allowed for predictable, reasonable hikes.
James Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, said pressing for fare hikes is “bad policy and completely wrongheaded,” particularly after the T’s winter breakdown. “To ask people to pay more for lousy service before you improve it is just completely wrong,” he said.
But the panel pitched fare hikes as an important step toward greater self-sufficiency at the T. It pointed out that the T’s fares are lower than those of peer transit agencies.
Only one other large municipal subway system — in San Francisco — charges less than the T for monthly passes, and only two systems — in Los Angeles and Philadelphia — charge less per ride, according to a Globe review of fares in eight other cities.
The MBTA charges $2.10 for a ride and $75 a month for a pass. The most expensive city among those the Globe reviewed was Washington, D.C., where users pay $237 for a monthly pass and up to $5.90 for a ride.
The panel also suggested some additional state aid in the long run. Lawmakers, the report recommends, should invest more money in upgrading vehicles, tracks, and stations — though only after the agency improves its management and develops a comprehensive spending plan.
The group also called on the state to assume a portion of the T’s debt. But in exchange, the report proposed, the T should wean itself off annual appropriations to plug budget holes.
The panel also waded into the debate over whether the T can continue to expand as its infrastructure deteriorates.
Public transit advocates say it must. An expansion of the system is necessary, they say, to accommodate growing ridership and keep the economy growing. But Baker and some close observers of the T say the agency must halt growth while it fixes a broken infrastructure.
The governor’s panel sided with him, calling for a moratorium on expansion, with exceptions for federally and privately funded projects. Among the projects that can still go forward: the planned Green Line extension into Medford and Somerville.
The group also called on the legislature to lift restrictions on privatizing MBTA services. And it pressed for change in the agency’s binding arbitration system for labor contracts, which is widely seen as a boon to unions and a drag on the agency’s finances.
The Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589 struck a measured tone in a statement released by its executive board Wednesday: “While we agree with many of the recommendations of this report, we have concerns about others. We hope to work together with the governor, the Legislature, and MBTA management to build a system that T riders deserve.”
Frank DePaola, the interim T general manger, said in a statement that “the findings of the special panel present us with an opportunity to address the core issues affecting the T’s performance.”
He said he looked forward to working with the governor “to provide reliable transit service for the long term and to rebuild the confidence our customers have in our system.”
Baker put his special panel together in late February after a series of storms crippled the T, bringing the region to a standstill and stoking public interest in long-simmering problems at the agency.
The group included the mayor of Braintree, a Harvard University urban planning and public policy professor, and a former chief executive of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, among others.
The panel reviewed past reports on the T, consulted with MBTA staff and business and labor groups, and hired the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to crunch the numbers on fares, advertising revenue, and other matters.
Panelists found high maintenance costs, absentee workers, and a failure to spend all the money available to the agency for improving trains, tracks, and stations. The administration let that information out in dribs and drabs in the run-up to the release of the full report, building a case for poor management at the agency.