Lawmakers drop objections to Baker’s proposal
Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File
The state Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a major component of Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to overhaul the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, in a decisive turnaround for the administration as it seeks to take control of the embattled agency.
Bowing to pressure from Baker and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, the Senate adopted the governor’s plan to create a special board to oversee the T for three to five years, just over a week after the chamber’s leaders rejected the plan.
Baker has made fixing the T his top legislative priority, and his administration argued that the creation of a “fiscal and management control board” was essential to curing the agency’s pervasive management failures.
Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, Republican of Gloucester, called the creation of the board an “unprecedented effort” to find common ground on one of the most pressing issues facing the Commonwealth.
The legislation “addresses in a very productive and meaningful way, the governance issues at the MBTA,” he said, shortly before the chamber approved the measure.
Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg also praised the compromise that went into the new control board.
“This is an important step in the process to reforming the MBTA so residents can count on a reliable and efficient public transit system. This past winter illustrated the vital importance of the MBTA to businesses and residents alike,” Rosenberg said in a statement.
Baker made fixing the T his top legislative priority after the transit system failed during relentless snowstorms this winter.
The five-member control board adopted by the Senate would include three members of the Department of Transportation board, one of whom is the transportation secretary or someone she appoints.
Senator Thomas M. McGee, a cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said the new body would ensure that the T worked closely with the rest of the Transportation Department.
“That’s making sure the Department of Transportation is really one system with many aspects and facets,” he said.
In a statement, Baker said he was pleased the Senate acted on the measure and thanked DeLeo for his leadership.
But he also indicated it was just the first step in fixing the agency.
The unanimous support on Thursday sends a strong message, but the measure still faces several legislative hurdles.
When the Senate leaders rejected the control board proposal last week, they left it out of their draft 2016 budget.
In response, Tarr reintroduced aspects of the governor’s legislation — including the control board — as amendments to the budget proposal.
Because the MBTA shakeup is now part of the budget legislation, it will be sent, along with the rest of the spending plan, to a conference committee that will reconcile the differences between the Senate’s budget and the version the House approved last month.
In addition, the Joint Transportation Committee will hold a hearing next week on the governor’s legislation, during which it may propose changes.
And even though legislative leaders eventually supported Baker’s control board, they may not grant it all the powers the governor wanted.
The Legislature seems poised to continue wrangling over other provisions in Baker’s proposal.
The governor, for example, wanted to suspend for the T a law that puts up hurdles before a public agency can contract out its services.
The House has supported that change in its budget, but the Senate rejected it in its version.
The new board will also have the right to raise fares, but under current law that limits the hikes to only 5 percent every two years.
The new board would take away power from the Department of Transportation board, the current overseer of the T. Baker has already forced the majority of the previous board members to resign and named his own appointees.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has argued that the new oversight board is the only way to give the T the focus and urgency it needs to be reformed.
The Transportation Department board only meets once a month and deals with other aspects of transportation system, such as the state’s highways, bridges, and Registry of Motor Vehicles.
On Monday, Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito met with commuters and urged lawmakers to pass legislation on the T before the summer.
Polito then held a news conference with a coalition of business leaders and mayors who supported Baker’s plans.
Other aspects of the governor’s legislation captured quick support from legislators.
The Senate supported the moves to expand the Department of Transportation board from seven members to 11 and to allow the transportation secretary to name the general manager of the MBTA.
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