Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday called for new oversight at the MBTA, using his annual budget proposal to suggest a refreshed governance structure for the beleaguered agency.
Baker is pitching that the T’s current five-member Fiscal and Management Control Board, all appointed by him, be replaced this summer by a seven-member panel that would include his secretary of transportation and five other appointees of the governor, including experts in finance, safety, and transportation operations — and at least one T rider. But he would also save a spot for communities that pay an appropriation to the T each year. That seat would be filled by a municipal representative and appointed by a separate organization that represents those cities and towns.
“There was a lot of interest on the part of participating communities that, if there’s going to be a board, that they have a voice on it,” Baker said, adding that he thinks it’s a “good idea.”
Under state law, the Fiscal and Management Control Board is scheduled to dissolve at the end of June, five years after it was created for emergency oversight following the calamitous winter of 2015. If it’s not extended, control of the MBTA would revert to the board of the broader Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which also oversees the state’s highways, bridges, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
On the surface, it’s a decidedly bureaucratic matter that will mostly determine who is attending which hourslong meetings in a downtown board room. But transit advocates and public officials alike have urged the Legislature to promptly determine who will next oversee the T for more than a year, arguing that dedicated and clear oversight is crucial to improving the state’s hobbled transit system.
“It may be more important than anything else the Legislature will do in the first six months this year,” said James Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary and member of the advocacy group TransitMatters.
In making space for a municipal representative, Baker, a Republican, appears to have listened to advocates that have said cities and towns should have a larger role in MBTA decision-making.
But the idea may not fully satisfy Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a Democrat, who had called for an oversight seat specifically for Boston in the aftermath of last year’s Red Line derailment. Walsh reiterated his demand at his State of the City address earlier this month.
In a statement, Walsh on Wednesday said he appreciated Baker’s move to add a municipal seat, but added: “Boston continues to be the largest payer into the MBTA system, and I will continue to advocate for Boston having a dedicated seat and voice on the MBTA board.”
Lizzi Weyant, the government affairs director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that supports municipal representation on the board, said it may make sense to have separate board seats both for communities closer to the city and those further out.
“The thing that’s different about the MBTA is that it serves 164 communities, and it serves them in different ways,” she said.
The final form of the new board will be decided by the Legislature. Lawmakers had previously said they were waiting for Baker’s recommendation before acting.
Already, several advocacy groups had been suggesting various ideas ahead of Baker’s proposal. For example, the Pioneer Institute, a think tank with ties to the governor, has said the existing board structure should be extended, with members given new auditing power to force quicker change at the agency.
But Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director, said the board should not have municipal representation, because it could cause geographic conflicts about service levels and other issues.
“You’re going to get Boston fighting against MetroWest,” he said.
Staci Rubin, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, suggested that the secretary should not be a member of the board, and that the board should have the power to fire the T’s general manager, to give more direct power to the board as opposed to the secretary.
As for who would serve? In recent days, most of the five current members — who are unpaid — declined to say whether they would be willing to stay on beyond June, although one, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, indicated she would if asked.
Baker’s proposal would require the new board to meet at least 12 times a year, down considerably from the 36 meetings the current control board is expected to hold. The frequent meetings were partially blamed by a panel that last year found failures in safety practices at the T. It said the many meetings distracted top management from daily operations.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.