When state officials revealed last week that the extension of the MBTA’s Green Line might cost up to $1 billion more than expected, the irony was evident.
The official giving voice to the worst-case scenario — that the state might have to abandon a project anticipated for decades — was none other than Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, a longtime transit advocate who for years had pressured officials to uphold their commitments to such transit improvements.
After all, as she had reminded the public repeatedly, those rail plans were not just niceties dreamed up by starry-eyed environmentalists, but legal commitments the state made to avert a lawsuit and to offset the impact of increased pollution from the Big Dig.
“They can’t just say, ‘We’re broke,’ ” she told the Globe a dozen years ago, when officials were bemoaning the projects’ mounting costs.
Yet there she was last week, leveling with the public in the bracingly frank manner that has characterized her career. Encyclopedic in her knowledge, data-driven in her approach, the onetime MIT debate team member is often unsparing in her candor, offering assessments based not on wishful thinking but on deadlines, regulations, dollars and cents.
To get the Green Line Extension back on track, she says, will require not just lower costs but higher credibility.
“The fundamental question is whether people trust the agencies to spend their tax dollars wisely,” Pollack said. “I don’t think we’ve made that case.”
Yet it is often said that no Cabinet member had a better sense of what she was getting into. A longtime leader of the Conservation Law Foundation, New England’s premier environmental advocacy organization, she wielded broad influence over city and state government, helping to shape not just transportation policy but also public access to the South Boston waterfront.
While working as a private sector consultant in recent years, she taught and led research efforts at the Northeastern University Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, presenting her own analyses of the state’s dwindling transportation finances and offering comparisons to those of other cities and states.
Pollack, 55, of Newton, is one of those rare figures on Beacon Hill who command respect from people on both sides of the aisle and from various corners of government. Mention her name and even wizened players admit to admiration without reserve.
“I’m a huge fan of Stephanie’s,” said Stephen J. Silveira, a Republican lobbyist who led an earlier study of the state’s transportation finances. “She is one of the smartest people I know and when it comes to transportation, she’s one of the most erudite people I know. I’m pretty good on the forest. She knows the leaves.”
A double-major MIT graduate (mechanical engineering and public policy) who then graduated from Harvard Law School, Pollack acknowledges an obsession with details; she scrutinizes the bids her agency is receiving every week.
Her wonkish style complements that of Governor Charlie Baker — once the state’s budget chief. But conservatives greeted Pollack’s appointment warily, viewing her more as an advocate than an expert. Charles Chieppo, a senior fellow at the conservative Pioneer Institute, said he “threw up in my mouth a little bit when I heard that announcement.”
Her name was inextricably linked with the Conservation Law Foundation, the hardball environmental group that had pressed the state to commit to MBTA improvements, including the Green Line extension, in 1990, at the tail end of the Dukakis administration. The commitments averted a lawsuit by the foundation and were enshrined in the state’s plans for compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, but attracted resentment for their lack of funding and unknown price tag. Chieppo calls the deal “the single worst state transportation decision of the latter half of the 20th century.”
These days, Chieppo is questioning his early assumptions about Pollack, praising her “wise and sober” analysis of expenditures and her willingness to focus on immediate needs.
A cynic might say that is because Pollack has worked so seamlessly within the Baker administration, without challenging the Republican dogma or agitating for the additional revenues that even the governor has acknowledged will be necessary. Pollack betrays no glimmer of disloyalty to the administration — even behind the scenes, said Rafael Mares, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
“She’s doing her job the way she’s supposed to be doing it — in clear coordination and in lockstep with the governor,” Mares said.
Twelve years before she joined a Republican administration, her predecessor at the Conservation Law Foundation, longtime president Douglas I. Foy, went to work for Governor Mitt Romney. An iconic figure with a towering reputation, Foy was largely sidelined by Romney, who began taking more conservative views as he edged toward his first campaign for president.
Pollack resisted comparisons to Foy, who hired her before she had turned 18. “I have known Doug Foy for a very long time and he was a great colleague and a great boss,” she said. “And I would never compare myself to him.”
Many following news of the Green Line extension — an on-again, off-again plan that had already begun and that has been driving development plans and influencing property values along the Somerville route — expect that the plan will move forward in some, less costly fashion. Still, Pollack insists the cancellation of the project cannot be ruled out.
“It has to be on the table until we have a solution. Because what we can’t do is just take the next step without knowing what the whole project looks like. That’s the pressure in every project,” Pollack said. “I don’t think it’s fiscally responsible.”
Because of the challenges she faces — not despite them — Pollack declares that her current position “will be the best job I will ever have.”
“The whole point of being in government is to make a difference,” Pollack said. “And look at all the differences we need to make.”