This winter, all eyes will be on the MBTA.
After the agency’s riders suffered through shutdowns and delays during the snowiest winter on record for Boston, Governor Charlie Baker and his transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, have vowed to make sure last winter’s chaos doesn’t happen again.
In the months that followed the T’s epic shutdowns, the Baker administration tapped a number of new faces to do one thing: fix the T.
We talked with three of those leaders about taking on the daunting task. Their interviews have been edited for length.
Frank DePaola, general manager
Before DePaola took over for departing general manager Beverly A. Scott, he was already well versed in one aspect of Massachusetts transportation: the highways.
As the highway administrator and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, DePaola helped the MBTA during the blizzards that overwhelmed the system last winter, dispatching highway department employees to help the T workers with snow removal.
The governor asked him to take over as interim general manager in March. Since then, officials have quietly made him the permanent choice.
You were tapped by the governor to replace Beverly Scott. When that happened, did you want it to be permanent?
When they asked me to do it, I immediately said, “Of course.” I knew I would take on the challenge. At that point, they didn’t know if it would be permanent or if . . . they were going to look to do something different. As the months have gone on and I feel like things have stabilized to some degree, I have the feeling that I want to stay, so I can see this through to its hopefully successful completion.
The winter is on everybody’s mind. When you testified in front of the Legislature, you talked about practices that the T hadn’t adopted that other systems had. You talked about how the culture was insular. Is that a major issue here, and have you been working to address it?
We have definitely worked to address it. Even last winter, the initial reaction was that the T didn’t think they needed additional assistance, that they could handle it themselves. And I was a part of a group from the Department of Transportation side that kind of came in and said, “Look, this is what you need to do. Whether you like the fact that we’ve come into your space, we’re here, and we’re going to work to get this up and running.”
There was a little bit of a culture shock from the institutional side of the T. But they’re beginning to see the benefit of using other methods, especially under extreme conditions. We’ve made some key changes through senior management positions throughout the T. We have people with a bit more of an aggressive attitude.
An aggressive attitude doing what?
In getting things done. They’re a little bit more aggressive about, “We want to get a certain amount of things done before winter.” There are a certain amount of things we want to accomplish before we’re ready. They’re a little more driven on a mission delivery standpoint.
Did you think that was missing from the culture?
They had a way they did things, and it had worked for many years prior to that. So their presumption was if they followed their standard operating procedures that they had used for previous years, that that would see them through whatever event that came.
But events built up on them and essentially overwhelmed their methods. There was no fallback plan. There was no, “What’s Plan B?” for them. There was, “We have to shut down, we can’t keep running.” And then, there was a momentary, “We don’t know what to do next” approach to this.
But under the new plan, we’re going to have a measured response to different levels of storms — to the most extreme storm, when it’s “all hands on deck” — and we have established some ideas on how we would handle that, but still keep measured service going.
You made a guarantee about a better winter — transitwise, anyway.
(Laughs) I don’t think I made a guarantee about weather, but that we’d be running.
Right. So if that doesn’t happen, whose failure is that?
I would personally take it as my failure. As I said, one of my main focuses here is to make sure this agency is better prepared for the upcoming winter. It’s been something we’ve worked many hours on since we dug out last winter. We have created, financed, developed, and now implemented an almost $80 million capital construction effort here in less than nine months, so that’s quite an accomplishment for an agency that usually takes years to develop major projects like that.
It’s been a concerted effort of a lot of people at the T, and we’ve also been able to do that so that we can fully inform the public about what we’re doing and exactly how we’re doing it because we also know there was a little bit of a crisis in confidence in the public. . . . I think people are genuinely concerned about whether the system will be ready for next winter.
Brian Shortsleeve, chief administrator
The T’s new chief administrator, who is in charge of the agency’s finances, has a varied resume with little transit experience.
After joining the ROTC at Harvard College, Shortsleeve served in the Marine Corps. He came back to Boston for his MBA at Harvard Business School, followed by a job at Bain Consulting.
While there, he took a leave of absence to work on the successful gubernatorial campaign for Mitt Romney, a longtime family friend. After that, he went back to the private sector at General Catalyst, a venture capital firm that has connections to Baker.
What was your experience with the T while you were growing up?
My early memories of the T were getting the 74 bus from Belmont to Harvard Square when I was in high school. I rode the Red Line when I was living in the Back Bay. We rode the Red Line from Park Street to Harvard Square. So I’ve had the opportunity to ride a lot of different routes.
How did your past life prepare you for what you’re doing here?
In the Marine Corps, it’s about leading people, fixing problems. At the end of the day, I’m here and the rest of the team is here because we want to fix this organization and make it better for riders. When you think about last winter — people sitting out for an hour, waiting on the train, waiting on the subways — it’s got to work better. I think I’ve got a lot of experience in the private sector, as well as the Marine Corps, going into organizations and helping them work better.
A lot of what you’re doing in investing is you’re working with companies. Some are young companies, some are mid-stage companies, but they’re always struggling with growth, always encountering challenges and getting through them. What I’m always trying to bring to the table is a high level of energy, a high level of focus. I think one great thing about the private sector is that it moves fast. You make decisions quickly. You always have incomplete information, but you always need to keep moving and make things better.
You’ve talked a lot about the T’s own-source revenue (such as advertising and real estate), as well as cost efficiencies. Even if you do get a lot more revenue and cut a lot of costs, do you believe the T is sustainable, and that you won’t need some extra state assistance?
We’ve challenged the group — as per the legislation — to balance the fiscal year 2017 budget based on own-source revenue and cost control. The T may very well need additional state assistance in the future. My focus, though, will be, “What should we spend it on?”
I would argue that if we need more state assistance, or if we say, for the sake of argument, that the money is there, that we’ve got to do everything we can to control our existing costs and our revenue. So that if we do get state assistance, let’s spend it on or let’s invest it in a world-class automated fare collection system that you can tap to swipe on every vehicle, that you can use to tap on every single mode of transportation. . . .
Let’s invest it in things like communications, how we’re communicating with our passengers, and what we’re doing on mobile, and what we’re doing on handhelds. There’s a huge amount that we could be doing there. I would argue that we could make this system work a lot better for the rider, but that sort of investment means we’ve got to do a much better job controlling costs.
One of the decisions that’s already unpopular with the union is exploring the privatization of bus lines. You’ve promised not to lay any drivers off with that decision. Without laying anyone off, there aren’t necessarily a lot of cost savings. How do you justify privatizing those lines?
The goal . . . is to expand service. That’s the goal. If you look at our current fleet of buses, we have about 1,000 buses, and about 250 are in maintenance at any given time. So we have about 750 available for [rush hour]. We have nine maintenance barns, and I visited them this week, and they’re at full capacity. They can’t put any more buses into the system; we have got the bus fleet that our infrastructure can support. If we want to expand service, the only way to expand service is to partner with outside groups.
Conceptually, the idea there is to keep serving these low- to moderate-ridership routes, so that they’ll continue being served. But the 93 buses and 65 drivers will come back into the core operation. If you look at our bus routes, 50 percent of our riders are on the top 15 bus lines, so putting those drivers and buses back into those core routes is effectively an expansion of services.
My view is that we have got to be actively looking into creative and innovative ways to partner with industry. There’s a lot of interesting companies out there doing interesting things. There’s Bridj, running around doing bus routes. There are a lot of private bus companies, many of which we do business with.
Do you worry about the private sector? You talked about Bridj, and obviously there’s Uber — there is lots of competition that can take away customers.
I would say that nimble, private companies like Bridj and Uber are absolutely a competitive threat to the MBTA. If you look at Uber, and their carpooling product, you can get pretty much anywhere you want for $4 or $6. It’s cheap. There’s no doubt that it’s competitive with the T.
What Bridj is doing — they’ve looked at all of the heat maps of where people live and they are running buses out of those places. I think, as an organization, we have an amazing franchise and we’ve got a great brand, and we own the subways. But we have to think about ourselves, I would say, as really competing for those riders.
That’s one of the metrics that we’re going to start to track, and we’ll talk about this over the next eight weeks: ridership, and driving up ridership.
I do think we live in a very competitive world, particularly with younger people who aren’t interested in waiting.
How do you compete better?
We’ve got to have a better product ourselves. We’ve got to expand service where we can. We have to use technology better than we use it. We’ve got to communicate with our riders more effectively than we do, and we have to invest a lot into making the system work better. We’ve got to be creative and innovative, periodically looking at all of our bus routes and where they are. That hasn’t been done in a while, but that may really inform how the city has changed over the last decade. We’ve got to be nimble and we’ve got to provide service in places where people want service. And I’ve got to say . . . that ought to include a lot of partnerships with private companies.
Joseph Aiello, chairman of the fiscal and management control board
When Baker and Pollack looked for ways to prove they could turn around the T, they lobbied the Legislature for a control board that would whip the T into shape.
Aiello, the chairman of that board, has long been immersed in Massachusetts transportation: He has held positions at the MBTA and worked under Frederick P. Salvucci, the former transportation secretary who engineered the Big Dig.
The East Boston native now works as a partner at Meridiam Infrastructure, an investing firm that specializes in public infrastructure. He spends half his week in New York for his job and an increasing amount of time studying the problems facing the T.
You’ve worked at the T before. What has changed since then that you’ve found most surprising?
Let’s talk about things that are consistent and then things that I find different. Certainly, the thing that is consistent is that there are a lot of good people there. A lot of very smart people there who want to do the right thing. Both management and labor that are focused on delivering service and making sure the T performs the way it’s supposed to perform.
It’s surprising to me how deep-set and far-ranging the challenges the T needs to successfully overcome in order to become the transit authority that everybody wants and expects. That’s the real surprise.
What are some of those challenges? What is the biggest, to you?
I wouldn’t focus on what’s the singular biggest one, but there’s a wide variety of them. Number one: I want to make sure that on the operating side, we get our costs in line with where they should be, that we make do on the short-term basis the best we possibly can with the systems and equipment that we rely on to operate, and that we successfully go through a series of procurements to upgrade the fleet and the other infrastructure that we need to.
Then on the capital side, that we take advantage of significant changes in the marketplace that are designed to extract better value from the private sector when we choose them as partners.
Do you have faith that the T has the resources to take on projects as big as the Green Line expansion, given the issues we’ve seen so far? (T officials have estimated that the extension of the line into Somerville and Medford could cost $1 billion more than initially expected.)
Not currently, would be my guess. That may mean, simply, that we haven’t invested in the staff to be able to upgrade their skill sets to manage complicated projects that exist in complicated environments — and their environments are very complicated. There are engineering and safety and environmental issues. There are regulatory issues, community desires around every one of these investments, and then there are limitations on dollars.
Next thing we need to make sure of is that the folks we put on the front line are adequately capable of juggling what sometimes are contradictory forces.
How do you know when the T will be at the state that it needs to be?
With any good organization, they work best when management and staff throughout the organization understands that they’re on an aspirational journey. That they’re trying to attain the unattainable. It drives them to improve every day, every month, every year. I personally believe I’ll be satisfied when I believe that the system has ingrained into itself that aspiration to meet the goal the community sets for it.
You think that’s missing now?
It’s not clear to me that it exists.
Can you talk a little bit about being younger in East Boston, and how transit affected your neighborhood?
Growing up in East Boston, you’re really isolated from the rest of the city. You looked across the harbor as a kid and you sort of wondered what was there. Your real lifeline to connecting into the city was the T, the Blue Line. For a quarter or whatever it costs in those days — I don’t want to embarrass myself by saying how cheap it was then — you get to whole different worlds.
You could see Government Center under construction, you could see elements of the Freedom Trail. You could get to the Museum of Fine Arts. You could go to Symphony Hall. These are things you didn’t even know existed. My guess is that my experience in Boston wasn’t that different from kids growing up in Roxbury or Dorchester who really had only two modes of transportation: walking and taking the T.
Is being on this board basically like a second full-time job?
(Laughs) I may misuse the phrase, but it’s like a vocation, versus a second job.
Let me say this, I’m amazed at the talent that exists among my fellow board members and the amount of time that each one of them has been devoting to this, relentlessly, from Day One. I think that each one of them understands that this is a critical organization to the Boston metropolitan area in so many ways, and that the need to fix it is critical — in large measure, to ensure that we have a solid economy and a continuing improvement of quality of life.
Do you feel like people are looking at the Green Line extension as a big test as to whether you guys can really handle these bigger projects?
I think it is a test. It is a test of us in a wide variety of dimensions. Can we recognize what got broken? Can we fix all the elements of what got broken and have a path forward, and then implement the path forward precisely as we were going to implement them? It’s a giant test for us.
Do you think you’re going to pass it?
Or what? What’s the alternative?