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Opinion | Joseph Aiello, Steve Poftak, Lisa Calise, Brian Lang, and Monica Tibbits-Nutt

A year in the life of ‘fixing the T’

Commuters waited for a Red Line train at the Park Street T Station.
Commuters waited for a Red Line train at the Park Street T Station.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A year ago Sunday, Governor Charlie Baker appointed us as the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board. The winter of 2015 had brought the MBTA to a halt. But that once-in-a-century season only aggravated what regular riders had known for years — the system was unreliable, under-maintained, and in decline. On this anniversary, we want to briefly recap what we have discovered, our efforts to stabilize the organization, and how we are now shifting to an accelerated action agenda to rebuild the MBTA into the nation’s premier transit system.

For decades, advocates and stakeholders warned that the MBTA was suffering a variety of significant ailments that could cause the organization to disintegrate, jeopardizing the Commonwealth’s economy and its environmental health. With the support of the Legislature, we were given three to five years and some important tools to finally treat longstanding operational and managerial failures.

Our first step was to take an honest look at the organization. The board has spent hours diagnosing problems that had built up over decades. Though it often meant unflattering headlines and critical comments, we aired our findings in full daylight, posting all presentations online and opening each of our almost weekly meetings with public comment.

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Though we had read many past reports on the MBTA, the T’s challenges were even deeper and more disturbing than we had anticipated. We found workforce productivity and morale to be poor. Transparency and internal communications had broken down. Management ranks were thin, and the MBTA was seriously underpaying the talented people it needs. The MBTA was able to deliver even adequate service only through the sheer determination and dedication of thousands of its employees.

One key finding was the MBTA’s poor management and delivery of capital projects, a malady that endangers large projects such as the Green Line Extension as well as smaller “state of good repair” projects. Funds that should have been invested in preventive maintenance and in modernizing assets instead went to fill growing operating deficits. And the privately contracted work we inherited was plagued with problems.

We were all taken aback by the lack of an institutional mindset that every dollar made available to the MBTA should be spent wisely and with accountability. In short, the MBTA was fiscally and operationally broken, with hard-working employees left to function as best they could within a failed system.

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A year later, we can report that the long-term rebuilding of the MBTA is underway.

Overall operating performance across bus, rail, and the commuter rail system has stabilized. Through collaboration with the staff, we were able to end fiscal year 2016 with the smallest rate of MBTA operating budget increase in 20 years. The board intends to meet the legislative mandate to fully balance our operating budget by further controlling costs and optimizing own-source revenues.

We have prioritized our capital dollars into investments that will directly improve on-time performance, safety, and winter resiliency, using operating budget savings to help fund them. New leadership is in place in key MBTA departments. The MBTA’s website, apps, and other communications systems have been upgraded so customers can get the information they need and also track performance.

But our greatest challenges lie ahead. Organizations fail when they lack a strategic vision and an organizational strategy to meet that vision, when they fail to set and meet measurable targets, when they lack effective senior leaders who collaborate with each other and with employees to attain those goals.

As we move from urgent tactical concerns to creating a sustainable MBTA strategy and culture, the FMCB will:

•Strengthen the MBTA’s senior management capabilities, capacity, and accountability;

•Strive for a collaborative relationship with our union workforce to make the MBTA cost-effective while drawing on private-sector innovation and competition to improve the “value for money” commitment to our users and taxpayers;

•With input from our stakeholders, produce a long-term strategic vision and organizational plan with a clear set of measurable operational, fiscal, and other objectives;

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•Recommend a permanent governance structure with an adequate span of control to succeed the Control Board.

None of these initial steps could have happened without the MBTA’s management and workforce, as well as the steady commitment of Governor Baker with support from legislative leaders and concerned stakeholders. This collaboration has made initial successes possible and makes hope for transformation achievable. For decades, many have cataloged the MBTA’s woes, but Governor Baker is acting on his commitment to “fix the T.” We thank him for his boldness. And we thank our riders, employees, and all members of the community for their patience, advice, and continued support while we work to transform the MBTA.


The authors constitute the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board.