State lawmakers on Monday grilled an expert panel appointed by Governor Charlie Baker about the administration’s proposals to fix the embattled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, in a session that showed the governor could face an uphill battle as he seeks to overhaul the agency.
One of the panel’s main recommendations was to create a new board to oversee the way the T spends its money, citing pervasive management failures. Baker has filed legislation calling for the creation of the new financial and management control board.
But questions from the joint transportation committee revealed confusion surrounding the details behind one of the panel’s more startling criticisms: That an agency rife with creaky equipment had failed to spend $2.2 billion in available capital funds to upgrade its aging infrastructure.
On Monday, Representative William M. Straus, the cochairman of the transportation committee, asked members of the panel for clarification on what that $2.2 billion represented.
“Is this money in the bank that they had that they didn’t spend, or did they need to go to the administration and ask for bond proceeds?” he said. “There’s an image out there . . . that there is $2 billion sitting around in a drawer unspent.”
No one answered that question clearly. “We didn’t understand at the time the source of the revenue that was unspent for the capital program,” said Brian McMorrow, a panel member who serves as the chief financial officer of MassPort’s aviation division.
Baker’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, offered little clarity when she said she had done “additional investigation” into the $2.2 billion. Pollack was not a member of the panel but had worked closely with its members on the report.
In attempts to provide a partial explanation for the $2.2 billion figure, she said the T had the opportunity to raise money using state bonds but did not take advantage of it. For example: In 2014, the T could have used $236.8 million in state bonds, she told lawmakers, but didn’t.
But MassDOT is still figuring out all the details behind the bulk of the $2.2 billion figure in the report, Michael Verseckes, a state Transportation Department spokesman confirmed.
After the meeting, Pollack said the lack of understanding over the $2.2 billion in unspent funds showed why a financial and management control board is needed.
“It’s really hard and it’s really complicated,” she said, adding that “the panel knew enough to know that the money wasn’t being spent.”
The financial management and control board proposed by the administration would temporarily take away power from an existing Massachusetts Department of Transportation board.
But by the end of the hearing, Straus remained unconvinced that the board needed to be created. Six of the seven members of the MassDOT board have resigned at Baker’s request, and the governor will be able to appoint their replacements.
“I didn’t hear anything today that tells me from a legal requirement or a policy reason, why some of these changes that we both support couldn’t be implemented by modifying the MassDOT board,” Straus said.
Despite the skepticism, panel members said they stood behind their findings. When Senator Thomas M. McGee, the co-chairman of the committee, asked for the data behind their findings to be released to the public, one of the members, Braintree Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan, said they would make the data available to the committee.
Pollack said they would release the data on a website that could be available to the public as soon as this week.
Union members, who filled Monday’s hearing room, and advocates for more spending for public transportation say they are looking forward to digging through the numbers the panel used for its scathing findings. James O’Brien, the president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, said he was puzzled that the panel has not yet supplied the data.
Rafael Mares, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation who has been critical of the report, said he was glad lawmakers asked tough questions.
“They were asking really good questions,” Mares said. “But unfortunately, I don’t see that they got all the answers.”
Nicole Dungca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.