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JOAN VENNOCHI

Davey’s MBTA ties mean more bad karma for Olympics bid

Richard Davey.
Richard Davey.AP/file 2015

WHEN BOSTON 2024 named Richard A. Davey as its new CEO in January, chairman John Fish praised his reputation “for smart, innovative leadership and management of large and complex transportation systems.”

That’s not exactly the picture painted in the latest study on the state’s public transit system, which Davey oversaw from 2011 to 2014 as transportation secretary for Governor Deval Patrick. Before that, Davey directly supervised the MBTA as its general manager. And before that, he was GM of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, the private company that, until recently, operated the T’s commuter rail service.

Let’s be fair. The T’s meltdown — as detailed by a special panel convened by Governor Charlie Baker — was decades in the making. In confronting it now, Baker has been careful to avoid pinning blame on any specific administration, government branch, or individual. As he should be. Baker understands the T’s problems are bigger than any one person could solve. They stretch back to his own efforts in the 1990s, when he served in various top administrative roles in the Weld-Cellucci administrations.

But Davey’s close ties to T troubles are an extra bit of bad karma for Boston 2024. The group was far from ready to sell the Olympics to Boston once the United States Olympic Committee bet on its bid. Instead, Boston 2024 looked like Michael Dukakis or John Kerry after they won their party’s presidential nomination — shockingly unprepared to launch a general election campaign, and gloriously naive about the strength and passion of the opposition.

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After a bad launch, Boston 2024 is in retrenchment now, looking to unveil a positive new message and refloat a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the latest headlines about the MBTA reveal that Davey, the Olympics guy who is supposed to use his superior management skills to control costs and protect the public’s interest, could not deliver that as the state’s transportation czar.

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As Boston 2024’s CEO, Davey touts his transportation expertise as a plus for this city’s bid for the Summer Games. His intimate knowledge of the state’s transit operation is supposed to help the Olympic organizing committee rally Beacon Hill around the mission of building the system needed to transport athletes and visitors from around the world.

Davey may know exactly what the T needs. But while he was the state’s transportation policy chief, he was part of a management team that oversaw a system suffering from “pervasive organizational failure,” according to Baker’s panel.

The T, that panel concluded, is in “severe financial distress,” lacks a “viable maintenance plan,” and suffers from “chronic capital underinvestment.” Absenteeism is a major problem that results in poor service and crippling overtime expenses. The culture at the T is an underlying problem, due to its lack of “manageability and accountability,” the report said,

The proposed fix – reform, first, more revenue, maybe, and definitely more oversight and planning – doesn’t help Boston 2024. Part of the group’s Olympics pitch is that assorted transit projects currently “in the pipeline” dovetail with their needs. That has already proven to be false. And now the Baker panel is calling for a complete needs reassessment of the T, weighed against cost and long-term goals. Those goals revolve pragmatically around getting people to work and school every day, and more generally, about town, on a reliable basis – not around getting people to a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza.

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Indeed, the T report buttresses the argument that we absolutely don’t need an Olympics to deal with the critical issue of improving public transportation. What we need is what this report delivered – a serious review, calling for serious reform before more money is thrown at the problem. The Patrick administration tried to get additional money for the T, but never pressed a strong reform agenda.

Boston 2024 backers say the Summer Games can be the impetus for speeding up needed transit improvements. But why should we plan improvements around a party? Anyone who has tried that for a graduation celebration or other special event knows that home improvements aimed at impressing guests often differ mightily from more substantive renovations.

Baker’s advisory panel provided the necessary blueprint for fixing the MBTA. That blueprint, not Boston 2024’s needs under Davey’s leadership, should drive necessary change.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.