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Activists want rider representation on MBTA board

Transit activists are urging the state to fill a vacancy on the MBTA board of directors with a passenger advocate.
Transit activists are urging the state to fill a vacancy on the MBTA board of directors with a passenger advocate.CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF/File 2017

Boston-area transit activists are lobbying the state to fill a vacant seat on the T’s board of directors with a rider advocate, especially to represent passengers from low-income and minority communities.

The five-member board has a vacancy with the ascent of its vice chairman, Steve Poftak, to general manager. Poftak will begin in that role on Jan. 1, but has already left the T’s board of directors.

At the board’s Monday meeting, activists from Chelsea, Roxbury, and Dorchester asked state officials to select someone familiar with the issues riders face in those communities, which are largely served by buses and have large minority or immigrant populations.


“This is an opportunity to bring on somebody who represents riders and communities of color,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of the Chelsea nonprofit GreenRoots. “We feel like we need a seat at the table where there are riders who understand public transportation and the challenges that face them.”

Will Justice, who focuses on the T at the Roxbury organization Alternatives for Community and Environment, said the interests of low-income riders will be especially important as the agency prepares to install a new fare system that will end cash payments onboard buses.

Activists said they hadn’t identified a specific candidate they felt should join the board. Members are appointed by Governor Charlie Baker.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Baker hopes to appoint the new board member by early January. She said she would “convey [to Baker] the desire to have a rider-member.”

Board representation has been a point of emphasis for national transit advocates in recent months. Transit Center, a New York-based nonprofit, published a report in May that compared the demographic makeup of a few agencies’ boards, including the MBTA’s, to regional population.


“Making transit boards more representative of how transit systems and cities are experienced is a simple and rapid way to open doors to policy reform,” Transit Center’s report said.

The T’s board, for example, has only one woman member, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who coordinates bus shuttle services west of Boston as her day job. She is also the board’s only person of color, while minorities make up just about half of the T’s ridership and females make up more than half.

Another board member, Brian Lang, leads a union of service workers in the hotel and restaurant industries. Officials have said Lang was appointed because of his insight into those workers’ commuting needs.

The MBTA’s board is temporary, having been established in response to the winter transit crisis of 2015. It’s scheduled to disband in mid-2020, although Baker and key policy makers have indicated they would like to replace the current board with a permanent one.

On Monday, activists noted that they had started to develop positive relationships with the former general manager, Luis Ramirez, as they seek to improve buses in Chelsea and other services and said they hoped Poftak would continue the discussions. Ramirez, who left the agency last week, is of Cuban descent.

Also at Monday’s meeting, officials:

■  Said weekend discount for commuter rail fares, which ended after six months on Dec. 9, will remain halted until a federally required analysis of whether the discount was fair to poorer communities is completed.


■  Voted to permanently run earlier buses on about 10 routes to help ease crowding after starting a test of the service in April.

■  And announced that the first of two-dozen new Green Line trolley cars will enter service this week after recently completing testing. The new cars were ordered as part of the Green Line extension, but will start entering service before that project is completed in 2021.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.