New MBTA general manager wants to emphasize rider experience
The incoming general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is asking for patience as he begins to grapple with the transit agency’s myriad issues, but he is making one major pledge to riders: to hire a high-ranking official whose job is to take their concerns seriously.
Luis Ramirez, who will start in one of the state’s more demanding and high-pressure jobs on Tuesday, stressed a rider-centric approach to public transit Thursday in his first expansive interview. The interview followed a week full of the type of systematic MBTA delays that constantly frustrate riders, such as signal problems that delayed Red Line service two days in a row.
Ramirez, who has not previously worked in public transit, declined to discuss several long-term matters at the T — noting that he had not started the job.
But, he said, one of his early plans is to hire “a strong customer advocate” who would report directly to Ramirez and focus on the rider experience.
“They’ll have a strategic seat at the table to be the voice of the customer,” he said. “Anything we do from design or implementation, any changes we are making. It’s somebody who’s going to work together with our team and with customer groups.”
Whoever fills the new position, which does not yet have a title, could chime in on matters like station design, how workers interact with passengers, and whether the T’s signage makes sense to the public, he said.
Ramirez was named general manager on Aug. 15 and will be the fifth person to hold the role under Governor Charlie Baker, following two successive interim leaders. He’ll be paid $320,000 a year, with bonuses that could go as high as $64,000, a considerable raise from past general managers, who earned about $175,000 a year.
Ramirez, 50, is in the process of moving from Dallas. He plans to live downtown with his wife, a General Electric Co. executive, and take public transit to work each day. He expects to get feedback from riders on his commute.
The Baker administration has touted Ramirez as a turnaround executive with a wealth of private-sector experience highlighted by two decades in leadership roles at Siemens and energy divisions at GE. But his hiring has also been criticized based on the poor fortunes of a a Dallas energy company called Global Power Equipment Group, which he ran from 2012 to 2015.
In the interview, Ramirez defended his time as chief executive at Global Power, which announced shortly after his 2015 resignation that it had made serious accounting mistakes in previous years. Later, the company said the problems extended back several more years, to before Ramirez’s tenure.
Global Power has since been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, seen its stock price sharply decline, and is facing an investigation from the Securities and Exchange Commission, all due to the accounting mistakes. Ramirez, meanwhile, is a defendant in a shareholder lawsuit that alleges he may have been aware of the problems.
The MBTA and Global Power have said Ramirez’s resignation was not related to the accounting problem. Ramirez maintained Thursday he had performed well at the helm of Global Power, because under his watch revenues increased and the company completed several acquisitions. He called the pending lawsuit “frivolous,” said he discussed the matter with state officials before he was hired, and argued the company may have never discovered the accounting issues if not for him.
“I take great comfort in knowing that the CFO I brought in and the process improvements that we made while we were there were likely what found the issues,” he said.
In the weeks since he was hired, Ramirez said, he has spoken with several riders who stress that the system must be made more reliable. That is his primary goal, he said, and can primarily be achieved through better investment in repair work.
But he does not believe the T will need more money to make those investments, a position that echoes the Baker administration’s. Instead, he believes the T must get better at spending money it has. The agency, he said, has too often let money go unspent because it has taken too long to procure work.
“The process we were using at the T, at least as I understand it, in the past could take several years. So that delays the ability to execute and spend some of the dollars that were available all along,” Ramirez said.
After the winter storms of 2015 cast a spotlight on the T’s aging infrastructure, the agency said it would need to spend more than $750 million a year for 25 years to achieve a state of good repair. But it has struggled to spend that much since, putting about $500 million toward the repair backlog in the 2016 fiscal year and about $700 million during the 2017 fiscal year.
Ramirez expects the T to focus primarily on improving existing infrastructure in the near future and will not prioritize service expansion, except for long-planned projects like the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, and commuter rail service to New Bedford and Fall River.
“The most important thing is that we focus on the ridership we have today,” he said. “We’ve got to fix what we have first.”
However, Ramirez expects to take an active role in the state’s ongoing “Focus 40” initiative, meant to develop a long-term regional transit plan that could include expansion ideas.
He declined to offer his perspective on several big-picture issues at the T until he becomes more acquainted with the agency, such as whether the commuter rail fleet should be electrified or certain MBTA functions should be run by the private sector. He said he is “barely” familiar with the North-South Rail Link, a long-shot proposal that would build a tunnel through Boston to connect commuter rail lines north and south of the city.
Ramirez said riders should not be concerned about his lack of experience in public transit because his private sector roles in the energy industry included managing the operations and maintenance of complex infrastructure, such as power plants, and involved working with government entities.
“When it comes to the actual operations day to day — service shops, electrical systems, systems that provide general infrastructure — those are all things I’m pretty familiar with,” he said.
Ramirez said he will bring business practices he picked up in the private sector to the T, such as reviews of project risks and better financial modeling.
But he said the agency’s goals should be driven by passengers’ day-to-day experiences and complaints. In interviews with the Globe this week, passengers complained about matters including the reliability of bus-tracking apps, the distance between bus stops, and commuter rail service frequency in suburbs north of the city.
“The input and the feedback we need from the ridership to help drive our goals and objectives is really key,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re aligning our long-term objectives to meet them.”