Congratulations — and condolences — to Steve Poftak, the new general manager of the MBTA.
It’s a tough, thankless job, but someone has to do it. Poftak officially took the helm on Jan. 1 and is the fifth person to give it a try under Governor Charlie Baker.
Poftak follows Luis Ramirez, a former General Electric Co. executive with no experience in public transit, who moved here from Texas to take the position. Culture shock, along with a resume that screamed “bad fit,” apparently hastened the Ramirez exit after only 15 months.
By contrast, Poftak, who has been serving as vice chair of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, is an experienced insider and public policy expert. Known for deep thoughts about transportation, he has been running the Rappaport Institute at Harvard University. Before that, he led research projects for the Pioneer Institute, a think tank known for its devotion to fiscal conservatism. During the search for his predecessor, Poftak also served briefly as interim GM.
Not that he asked, but here’s a a to-do list:
Let the GM — not the secretary of transportation — be the T’s hands-on, day-to-day manager. Not that Secretary Stephanie Pollack isn’t capable, but her job is to oversee and set big-picture priorities for all aspects of transportation; she shouldn’t be living in the weeds of MBTA operations. Poftak should be the one making the trains and buses run on time, and be accountable when they’re not.
Challenge the status quo. The T, a massive, insular, slow-moving bureaucracy, needs constant shaking up. After Beverly Scott left in 2015 amid piles of snow that crippled the T, Baker brought in a colleague from his venture capital days — Brian Shortsleeve, who came in as chief administrator, focusing primarily on the agency’s financial issues, and later was promoted to general manager. During a tenure aimed at shaking things up, Shortsleeve replaced about half of the top management team.
Keep relentless focus on the T’s capital spending plan. The $8 billion capital spending budget targets three areas: reliability, modernization, and expansion. For years, the T wasn’t spending all it had because of problems getting projects underway. Things have improved under the Baker administration, but Poftak should still double the rate of capital spending on reliability and modernization projects involving power, signals, bridges, and tunnels. Keeping those projects moving is hard work, requiring constant pushing from the top down and hiring more skilled workers. But if it doesn’t happen, passengers in spiffy new Red and Orange Line cars could end up stranded, due to the same old aging-infrastructure problems.
Show some love for commuters. Use some of that capital budget to spruce up worn stations. Fix corroding ramps, leaky ceilings, and broken elevators. A preliminary review already revealed that more than half of 378 stations and parking facilities need significant repairs. Safety takes precedence over cosmetics, but a better atmosphere can boost confidence in the long-range plan. Showing some love could also get more commuters to stick with the T and reverse the declining subway ridership of recent years.
Keep the Fiscal Management Control Board. Established in 2015 after the system’s snow-related crisis, the board provides critical fiscal oversight and brings welcome transparency to transit issues. Poftak should know; he has been a member of the board. By statute, the board is due to go out of business in June 2020. Poftak should find a way to keep some version of it going. Meanwhile, Poftak’s new job leaves an opening on the control board. Activists want to fill it with a rider advocate — a good idea.
Beyond raising fares, the T needs to make the case for new revenue. A recent report by the Commission on the Future of Transportation calls for the state to develop long-term financing for the transportation system. One potential funding source involves partnering with other states to develop a low-carbon fuel standard that could raise up to $5.5 billion in Massachusetts over the next decade. The report also proposes the state explore congestion-pricing: levying tolls on traffic heading into the city at busy periods to encourage drivers to commute at off-peak times. In both cases, proceeds from these policies could be reinvested in mass transit.
Think about legacy projects. As the city grows, so should the T. That’s sometimes code for new subway extensions, but that’s not necessarily how a legacy project needs to look. Convert commuter rail lines to high-level platforms. Create bus-only lanes. Electrify the buses or the trains.
Based on Poftak’s experience, he understands the challenges that lie ahead. Let’s hope he sticks around long enough to deliver the public transit system our region deserves. Maybe it will be good enough for even the governor to start riding the T.