MBTA general manager Luis Ramirez is out after just 15 months
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager, Luis Ramirez, abruptly left his job after just 15 months, state officials announced Tuesday, marking a short tenure for an executive once called a turnaround artist who would fix the ailing system.
State transportation officials said Ramirez will be replaced by Steve Poftak, a member of the MBTA’s oversight board who served as interim general manager for two months before Ramirez was hired.
The announcement came on a morning when the Red Line suffered hours of delays related to a signal problem.
The switch will mark the fifth change in leadership at the T under Governor Charlie Baker, highlighting the often-tumultuous efforts to improve service since the transit system collapsed in the winter of 2015.
“In Massachusetts, this may be the equivalent of finding a White House chief of staff,” said state Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and cochairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
“It’s a massive job, so anybody who steps in has a lot to undertake.”
Officials did not give an explicit reason for the split, saying only that they felt Poftak was a better fit to oversee the major infrastructure improvements that are underway. But in recent weeks, members of the governing board have criticized the MBTA for not briefing them on crucial initiatives, such as the status of the T’s lengthy repair backlog.
And on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack indicated that the pace of change must pick up at the T.
“The time has come when our riders expect to see customer-facing, visible improvements to MBTA service,” she said.
Ramirez’s selection in August 2017 was the result of a monthslong national search, and he was awarded a three-year contract with an annual base salary of $320,000 — an 80 percent increase over what previous general managers got.
He will still receive about $152,000 through a severance agreement.
In a written statement from the Department of Transportation, Ramirez said he “loved working for the people of the Commonwealth” and that “this is a good time to transition.”
A former manager at General Electric who ran an energy services company in Texas, Ramirez, 52, had no experience in public transit or working in Boston when he was hired. At the time, Baker said he was “quite confident” in his selection and predicted “a year from now, most other people will agree with me.”
In selecting Ramirez, state officials said they purposely sought an executive from the private sector, casting him as a set of fresh eyes with managerial experience to guide the T into an era of improved service.
But on Tuesday, Pollack cited as Poftak’s strength resume points that Ramirez lacked: familiarity with the MBTA and its employees. Poftak is vice chairman of the T’s oversight board, and he ran an institute at Harvard University that worked with state and local governments on public administration.
Pollack said she and Ramirez had met to discuss the future, and that “we both agreed there was a different direction he needed to go in and the T needed to go in.” “My job has been to make sure the T has the right leadership at the right time.”
Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said the Baker administration should have realized transit experience was important for running the complex agency.
“Luis was always going to have a hard time in this role without a transit background, and any background in Massachusetts politics or policy,” Dempsey said. “He had a really tough job cut out for him.”
Pollack said Poftak will bring more expertise on major infrastructure projects, an area he oversees on the T’s board, as the agency undertakes major capital programs, including new train cars, the Green Line extension, and replacement of the long-loathed signal system.
“He’s going to be able to hit the ground running, so I’m very excited about that,” Pollack said.
In a statement, Poftak said his goal is “accelerating progress toward improving MBTA service and reliability.”
Poftak will earn about $320,000 a year — plus potential bonuses — under a contract that runs until the end of 2021. If he lasts that long, he would be the first general manager to serve more than 28 months since Daniel Grabauskas left in 2009.
As MBTA general manager, he will report to Pollack and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, which Baker and the Legislature set up in the aftermath of the disastrous 2015 winter.
James Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, said the T is in desperate need of stability at the top.
“It turns over too much, and it doesn’t have the kind of calm stability you need,” he said. “They’re going to have their hands full with these big, big issues. You want someone who’s going to do this job for a while.”
There were hints of dissatisfaction with Ramirez’s performance: Officials delayed awarding him bonuses for his first year while they spent more time analyzing his performance, and he was not at the regular meeting of the MBTA’s board of directors on Monday.
He has already left the agency, and Poftak will not start in the job until Jan. 1. Deputy general manager Jeff Gonneville will run the agency in the interim.
As general manager, Ramirez was squeezed between Pollack, who is deeply involved in the MBTA’s administration, and Gonneville, who is responsible for day-to-day operations.
Ramirez has said he focused on managing contractors, ensuring the T properly spent billions of dollars on infrastructure upgrades, including a commuter rail safety project, making worker conditions safer, and improving customer communications. He began some initiatives on all those fronts, though they largely remain works in progress.
Pollack said she still believes Ramirez’s private-sector experience was helpful, crediting him with renegotiating a deal with a bus mechanics union and firing a failing contractor on the T’s service for riders with disabilities.
While the Baker administration plans to invest about $8 billion over the next five years in the system, Ramirez often echoed the governor’s line that the agency does not need more tax revenue.
That’s in contrast with the last general manager hired by a nationwide search. Beverly Scott, who was hired under Governor Deval Patrick, believed her role was to advocate for more funding at the T.
Meanwhile, in just the last few weeks the T has experienced the kind of mishaps that remind riders of just how far the agency has to go, including two train derailments, an engine fire, and major delays on the subway, commuter rail, and bus systems. Ramirez’s team often acknowledged that service had not yet improved significantly, but promised it would with several projects in the coming years.
Other major projects underway at the T include the installation of new fare equipment across the entire system, the replacement of a major drawbridge at North Station, and a project to improve the bus system, which board members, including Poftak, have criticized as taking too long.
Straus, the state representative, said Poftak is well-suited for the job, but he believes service will not improve quickly enough unless the T receives more funding to spend more quickly.
“The expectations are high, and the best manager that anyone could dream of is still going to face a tremendous challenge, because the T today still is constrained by bad decisions over a couple of decades,” Straus said.