A veteran business executive and Republican political strategist was named Thursday to oversee the finances of the
MBTA, as the Baker administration follows through on its promise to overhaul the way the beleaguered, debt-ridden transit agency is run.
Brian Shortsleeve, a former executive with the General Catalyst Partners venture capital firm, will take on the task of getting the agency, already saddled by debt and aging infrastructure, into strong financial shape so that it can modernize and upgrade its fleet. Frank DePaola, interim general manager since March, will stay on board, but focus only on operations, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack announced Thursday.
Shortsleeve inherits a $6.7 billion to-do list of necessary upgrades, and will also be faced with a major expense announced Thursday: nearly $500 million needed to pay for federally mandated safety upgrades for its commuter rail system due by the end of the year.
Shortsleeve will be working closely with the new “fiscal and management control board” that Governor Charlie Baker, responding to the systemwide service breakdowns of the past winter, pushed the Legislature to create to bring financial stability to the T.
Both Shortsleeve and DePaola will report to Pollack, giving Baker ever more control over — and accountability for — the transit agency that runs the area’s subways and buses and oversees the commuter rail system.
Pollack said the move to cleave the MBTA’s top job into two positions was necessary because “trying to run the system every day and trying to overcome years of fiscal and management problems has stretched the T to its limits.”
Shortsleeve will earn $175,000 in the new position. A former Marine, he was political director for Mitt Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Baker served as an executive-in-residence at General Catalyst, the venture capital firm where Shortsleeve once worked.
Shortsleeve called his new job exciting and said he thought his experience with organizations in transition would help the transit agency.
“There’s certainly a lot of work to be done, but the T is such a critical part of our regional economy,” he said.
The T’s backlog of overdue investments in infrastructure is epitomized by the safety upgrades announced Thursday.
Since 2008, federal law has required that US commuter rail agencies and large freight railroads install what is known as “positive train control,” which can thwart deadly crashes, by the end of 2015.
But the MBTA has fallen far behind that schedule: This summer, it will finally get around to choosing the contractor that will install the $490 million project.
Other transit agencies across the country are also well behind schedule on the upgrades.
“We have started the planning and development effort on this,” DePaola said at the second meeting of the fiscal control board Thursday, before adding, bluntly: “But I can tell you we won’t be in place by December 2015.”
Transit specialists say the technology would have averted the May 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured dozens of others.
On the T’s commuter rail, the technology would automatically slow down or stop trains in critical situations when a driver fails to do so.
DePaola told the control board that the T has been working on the upgrades since 2010, but massive costs, negotiations with private freight agencies, and the expansion of the commuter rail network have made it difficult for the agency to install the technology on time.
In an interview after the meeting, Pollack dismissed the explanation.
“I understand that there have been financial struggles and I understand that people before we got here made decisions based on their belief of the resources they did or didn’t have available, but there’s no compromising on safety,” she said.
Failing to install the safety technology will bring further financial consequences to an agency that can ill afford them:
The T could be fined daily for not having the upgrades in time, DePaola said.
He said he hoped the deadline could be extended, either through legislative changes or an agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration.
DePaola, who stepped into his role as interim general manager in late February, will stay on in his new role until at least the end of the fiscal year, in the summer of 2016.
In another MBTA leadership move, Jeffrey Gonneville, a 14-year veteran who was the acting chief operating officer, was asked to serve on a permanent basis.
The T’s former general manager, Beverly A. Scott, set off the leadership changes when she announced in February that she would step down in April.
Her announcement came at the height of the winter’s relentless snowstorms, and just a day after a fiery press conference in which she defended the T and pushed the state for more investment. At the time, Scott said she wanted to spend more time with her family.
But this week, Scott also got a new appointment of her own: President Obama nominated her as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. The five-member panel oversees the agency that investigates major accidents involving highways, rail lines, and air travel.