Yvonne Abraham

From inside, ex-advocate sees how much MBTA is a mess

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

My, how I’ve been missing Stephanie Pollack.

The state transportation secretary used to be my go-to person for all things commuter-y. Over at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, she was my oracle: Supremely knowledgable, with a gift for getting to the heart of things.

She was never a blank check kind of advocate, but she was always very clear that to solve our transportation woes, we needed new revenue, and plenty of it. She was a passionate and eloquent advocate of a 19-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike, rightly certain that it would save taxpayers money in the end.


Then incoming governor and new-tax-averse guy Charlie Baker tapped Pollack to be his transportation secretary, a move that delighted and mystified many, including me.

Since then, she has fallen into line with the governor on the need to put reform before new revenues of the sort she had advocated for so strongly when she was on the outside. Last week, she even suggested that the Green Line expansion — a mass transit commitment the Conservation Law Foundation won in a hard-fought battle years ago while she was working there — might be canceled because its budget had ballooned by up to $1 billion.

Who is this flinty person? Where is the Pollack I knew and admired?

She hasn’t gone anywhere, she told me Wednesday. She just knows a lot more now that she’s on the inside: The MBTA is even more of a mess than she thought it was. For years, while she had been calling for more funding, the T was leaving hundreds of millions on the table, failing to spend it on desperately needed maintenance and repair projects. In tallying the mind-boggling cost of those projects — now $7.3 billion — the authority had been undercounting its assets.


“As much as I knew,” she said, “I’m not sure I had the complete picture. I’m not sure I do now, and I’ve been secretary for six months.”

Yikes. “The T is like a bathtub full of holes,” she said. “Turning the spigot to let more water in is not going to fill up the bathtub. We need to fix the holes.”

This sounds an awful lot like the reform-before-revenue argument we had back during the Patrick administration. After cost-saving changes were made at the MBTA, revenue increases were sold to the public — and the public wasn’t buying. The Legislature delivered less money than advocates hoped for, and voters reversed a measure to index the gas tax to inflation, cutting off a key money source.

Is that sorry history being repeated? No, Pollack said. This is about creating a system that works. And until that happens, the public will never agree to revenue increases.

Given her deep roots among advocates, that stance could have earned her the turncoat label. But Pollack has managed to keep their respect.

Stephanie “has always seen transportation as a tool for making the world a better place,” said Kristina Egan director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a state advocacy group.

Talking to Pollack, you get the sense that she is not just being a good soldier in the Baker battalion, that she really sees her job as restoring public faith. She is as compelling as she ever was. Baker was smart to hire her.


But as good a case as Pollack makes, digging the T out of its hole will only take us so far. Our current needs, and the greatly expanded ones of the next decade or two, are going to cost way more than the T now has. To meet those challenges, we have to start talking about investing. That’s not a tax-and-spend liberal perspective: It’s responsible planning.

Not yet, Pollack says.

“The most important legacy this administration can leave is a functioning T,” she said. “If we have that, then we can have the conversation about how much you want it to deliver.”

The state’s future depends on that conversation coming sooner rather than later. It depends on the new Stephanie Pollack being as good as the old.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com