One of the biggest questions hanging over the future of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has little to do with subway delays, bus lanes, or modern electronic payments. It’s about who’s going to run the thing.
The MBTA oversight board, installed after the crisis of the 2015 winter, is scheduled to dissolve in mid-2020. That may seem a ways off. But with Governor Charlie Baker reelected to another term, members of the current board are expected to begin discussing ideas for a successor at a meeting Nov. 26, with the goal of sending recommendations to state lawmakers in December.
Whoever oversees the T signs off on major decisions that affect riders’ daily commutes, from fare prices to service levels to which big project comes next. The current board’s expiration will also come in the middle of several key initiatives at the agency, including the introduction of new Red and Orange Line cars, the installation of a new fare system, and the extension of the Green Line through Somerville.
“We’re going to need to address this sooner than later,” said Joseph Boncore, the transportation leader in the state Senate. “There should be a continuation of this type of oversight. It puts experts in the room to monitor and track the projects the T is doing.”
But if the Legislature does nothing, oversight of the T reverts to another board that oversees general transportation issues for the state, meaning transit questions will be lumped in with bridge work, highway paving, and other road or motor vehicle matters. That was the case under former governor Deval Patrick as part of his administration’s transportation reforms, but Baker has already indicated he wants another board focused on the T.
“I think it’s important for the work that’s being done here to be regularly in front of the public,” Baker said in an interview before the election. “I think you’re likely to see me want to continue to have . . . a board that worries about public transportation.”
Baker suggested the next T board could also oversee the state’s other 15 regional bus systems, to coordinate public transit policy across Massachusetts.
Baker urged the Legislature to create the current Fiscal and Management Control Board, as it’s formally known, shortly after he took office in 2015, to overhaul a system that was shut down for days by record snow and cold.
Initially feared by some transit advocates as a setup for major cost-cutting at the T, the board has won plaudits even from skeptics.
“Many folks in the advocacy community were skeptical about having another board, but I think they have demonstrated they’re valuable,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the pro-transit organization Livable Streets Alliance. “Having a board that is focused solely on the T is helpful.”
Meeting on a near-weekly basis, the current board has overseen the T with a dual mandate: to control spending on daily operations while increasing infrastructure investments.
Over the last 3½ years, the board slowed wage growth at major unions by approving new contracts, while making controversial decisions to close late-night subway service on weekends and raising fares by about 9 percent in 2016.
Meanwhile, it has directed the T to aggressively spend on repairs, shortening the timeline to complete a total updating of the system from 25 years to 15. And it has pushed officials to develop strategies to improve the bus system and commuter rail network, keep vehicles in good working condition as they age, and enhance messaging to riders.
Its members approach most issues analytically, though they sometimes show flashes of emotion — such as when one member recently demanded quick improvements to a troubled but popular bus route in Chelsea.
The five current members, all unpaid, were appointed by Baker. They are Joseph Aiello, the board’s chairman and a longtime transportation executive in the private sector; Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who runs a shuttle bus system along Route 128 for major employers; Brian Lang, the head of a labor union for hospitality workers; Steve Poftak, executive director at a Harvard public policy institute; and Brian Shortsleeve, a venture capitalist who had served as acting general manager of the T.
Their votes on policy and financial matters are typically unanimous, with only occasional split decisions. Sometimes they buck the Baker administration on big matters, sometimes to the delight of riders, such as pushing the agency to consider expanding the Blue Line to connect with the Red, and sometimes to their detriment, like pushing for higher parking rates.
Louise Baxter, a South Boston resident and member of a small group called the T Riders Union, testifies at nearly every meeting. She doesn’t always agree with the control board but doesn’t want the close attention to the agency to end.
“We need to keep something similar,” she said.
Baxter said she thinks the governor’s control over the board should be limited somewhat. She suggested staggered terms that could span different administrations, or allowing officials or groups other than the governor to appoint some members.
Shortsleeve, however, said he believes board members should be appointed solely by the governor to ensure the state’s top elected official is held accountable for the way the T is running.
Advocates have also called for union representation on a future board, or requiring more female members.