Last summer, five people were given a seemingly impossible task: fix the beleaguered Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which had failed spectacularly amid record-breaking snowstorms a few months earlier, leaving thousands of commuters stranded.
The five had been tapped for a new MBTA fiscal control board — a panel Governor Charlie Baker had pushed the Legislature to give him, in hopes it could fix the MBTA.
A year later, the board has reduced the MBTA’s deficit, redrawn plans for the long-awaited Green Line light rail extension, and talked candidly about persistent problems — from security lapses to a mind-boggling backlog of repairs. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack called its progress “outstanding” for the first year.
But for riders, the board’s work still leaves much to be desired: Commuters are paying more in fares and no longer have late-night service on weekends, but delays and crowding remain commonplace. And though the governor blasted the MBTA for not spending enough on upgrades to its aging infrastructure, the board’s focus hasn’t yet prodded the T to ramp up spending.
“While a lot is happening, it’s a mixed bag in terms of accomplishment,” said Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Still, Mares and other transit watchers say the board deserves more time to prove it can bring change to the 6,500-worker agency.
“The MBTA is an ocean liner,” said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents the communities that receive T service. “You can’t turn it around on a dime.”
Lifting the curtain
In 2012, a massive shakeup created a Massachusetts Department of Transportation board of directors, which met monthly and looked after both the MBTA and the state’s sprawling network of highways and tolls.
But by 2015, Baker believed the monthly board meetings wouldn’t be enough to fix the MBTA. The Legislature granted him power to create the new board, which took control of the T, meeting weekly and digging deeply into the agency’s finances.
Joseph Aiello, a former T official who now works for infrastructure giant Meridiam Infrastructure, was tapped as chairman. The other members are Steve Poftak, leader of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School; Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of a regional transit provider; Lisa Calise, chief financial officer of Perkins School for the Blind, who used to work for the City of Boston; and Brian Lang, president of a large union for hospitality workers.
Almost immediately, the problems of the agency came into full view. Although the T has long been a high-profile agency, big decisions often happened behind the scenes.
“They created this forum where people can come and talk about the transit system in a way that’s useful, and there are results,” Regan said. “That’s something that the old MassDOT board couldn’t do.”
Since the new board was created, T officials, particularly Acting General Manager Brian Shortsleeve, have used the meetings as a place to air the T’s problems: abuse of overtime, startling inefficiencies in the MBTA’s warehouse and cash-collecting operations, and the middling performance of its subway lines.
Perhaps most important, the board has wrestled with the T’s large backlog of repairs and upgrades — estimated at about $7.3 billion, a figure that may ultimately grow substantially, some transit watchers say.
“They’ve completely set a new tone,” said Stephen Silveira, a former MBTA official who now works as a senior vice president for ML Strategies. “These guys are asking questions that haven’t been asked before.”
Higher fares, but delays persist
The board has made a series of controversial decisions, largely aimed at cutting a large budget deficit.
Board members unanimously approved a 9.3 percent fare hike that went into effect this month. They discontinued a late-night subway and bus service program that proved popular, but not popular enough for board members to justify its $14 million cost. They’re considering privatizing several departments, drawing the ire of unionized workers.
And though the board signed off on a scaled-down version of the troubled Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford, members could still pull the plug at any moment if they don’t believe it’s feasible.
The focus on the budget has shrunk the deficit for the 2017 fiscal year. In March, the T said the deficit declined from an original estimate of $242 million to about $80.3 million. Officials say that’s important because they can use money that would have gone to operating expenses on upgrades for the T’s old vehicles and tracks instead.
Officials also say new policies helped cut down on overtime hours. From January to June, employees worked 17 percent fewer overtime hours than they did in 2014. (The drop was more dramatic — about 40 percent — compared to 2015, a record-breaking winter).
But the board has also approved changes that will add to the deficit: The board OK’d at least $66 million over six years in new payments to Keolis Commuter Services, the money-losing company running its commuter rail.
Meanwhile, the transit agency’s performance is far from perfect.
According to T data for one month this summer, on-time performance during rush hour stayed unremarkable: About a third of buses were late. About 22 percent of rush hour trains on the Red and Orange Lines came later than expected, as well as about 20 percent of Blue Line trains. During the same period, about 14 percent of commuter rail trains ran late during rush hour.
Transit experts say that’s understandable. It would be unlikely to see such an immediate change for an agency that has long been saddled with debt, friction between unions and management, and a lack of proper capital investment. But it does color how the public may judge the agency’s and the board’s efforts.
“The experience on the system hasn’t changed enough,” said Mares. “So far, I really think there isn’t enough happening for people to know that there’s something afoot here, to know that it’s changing.”
In addition, the agency has made little progress in one area that could impact service in a big way: spending more on the ailing vehicles, tracks, and signals often to blame for delays.
When Baker was making his case for the control board, he chided the agency for leaving $2.2 billion in budgeted capital funds unspent over the years.
But in the past year, the T was on track to spend only about the same amount it spent last year — around $770 million — on all its major long-term investments, including infrastructure upgrades and expansion projects such as the Green Line extension. That’s about 74 percent of what the T planned to spend on those upgrades.
Officials have blamed the lack of progress on problems with the Green Line extension, and delayed payments for ongoing projects. But it also reflects the current capacity of the T to deal with some of its most important projects.
Poftak, a board member, has repeatedly expressed his disappointment at the lack of progress.
“We’ve all agreed that we need to spend more to whittle that number down over 25 years, and we’re not even close,” he said. “If the T can’t begin to deliver a capital plan that gets us ahead of the deterioration of the system, no amount of additional funding or reform will matter.”
Aiello said he’d like to see higher spending on necessary upgrades, too. The board is helping to drive a total reconfiguration of the department that handles such big projects, so it can better deliver in coming years, he said.
Pollack says that she is more concerned about whether the agency is spending on the right investments, rather than just spending a certain amount of money.
Lang says projects are in the pipeline that will help the T turn things around, including new Red and Orange Line cars, which will begin arriving in 2018.
“I don’t think the public is going to understand that change is happening yet, and rightly so,” said Lang. “They need to see better delivery of services, and we’re not there yet.”
Pollack says that is not lost on any members of the board. They feel the weight of accountability on their shoulders every day, she said.
“And it’s only going to get harder, not easier,” she said.