MA: How to fix the MBTA: One idea would give the governor more power, but does that ignore the real issue?

Consider this scenario: With issues plaguing the MBTA, lawmakers and the governor decide to fold the public transit agency into the state’s Department of Transportation and effectively create two divisions, one to oversee train operations and another to manage large capital projects.

It’s a suggestion that was aired last week by a top House lawmaker during a legislative oversight hearing into spending, management, and safety decisions at the MBTA. And it was an idea that did not catch LivableStreets Alliance Executive Director Stacy Thompson by surprise.

“I’m not surprised,” she said in an interview with MassLive. “This sort of like ‘we’ll have someone else take it over, we’ll restructure as the solution’ is definitely something that we’ve seen in many conversations previously, and it doesn’t work.”

With a series of chaotic safety incidents troubling the MBTA, a federal investigation underway, and a legislative oversight process kicking off this week, the head of the MBTA and top state officials say they are willing to at least discuss how the public transit agency’s structure could be altered.

It’s a conversation that advocates like Thompson are cautioning is premature and does not strike at the heart of many issues with the public transit agency. But one key state lawmaker says a structural change could help alleviate problems at the MBTA by allowing a larger state agency like MassDOT to handle capital projects while day-to-day train operations are left to a different group.

“What the T is not particularly good at handling is the capital side of what is currently their assignment, which is building the infrastructure, doing the long-term care, the growth of the system, etc,” Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Bill Straus said in an interview with MassLive. “And so if we look at it that way, certainly at the moment … the capital infrastructure responsibilities are more in the wheelhouse of MassDOT.”

Over the past year, transit experts and state officials alike have been scrambling to address a series of accidents, train crashes, elevator malfunctions, derailments, and the April death of Robinson Lalin at a Red Line station. Some have proposed shuttling more money to the MBTA to help respond to safety directives from the federal government, others have suggested additional oversight, and now, the conversation has, for the moment, found itself on governance structure.

‘Why do we even have the T?’

Speaking at the outset of last week’s MBTA oversight hearing, Straus invited “people to start asking the difficult question, which is, why do we even have the T?”

“Why don’t we have an overall transportation system?” he said. “... Is the T really qualified going forward to be running a capital operation? Or, as exists already, should MassDOT itself, other parts of MassDOT, be handling the capital work?”

Both Gov. Charlie Baker and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said this week they are open to at least discussing the idea. Baker, speaking on GBH Radio Thursday morning, said it’s “certainly a conversation worth having.”

“There’s a lot of complexity associated with that, but I think that’s a conversation worth having,” he said.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon following a fire on the Orange Line, Poftak said he would let the executive and legislative branches sort out “what the optimal structure for the T is.”

“Anything that those parties can do and other parties can do to help us make the MBTA safer, I would be open-minded about,” he said in response to a question about whether he was in favor of merging the MBTA into MassDOT.

Sen. Brendan Crighton, Straus’ counterpart on the Transportation Committee, said it’s important to ask questions about the MBTA’s structure.

“I don’t think that any of us are pretending that we have all the solutions here, but Chair Straus raised some good issues there, and I think, worthy of having a conversation,” he said after the hearing.

Giving the executive branch more control

But transportation advocates who follow the MBTA closely warned that consolidating the transit agency into MassDOT ignores what they say is a key issue — properly funding the system — while giving the executive branch more control over the system.

Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board and a former MBTA employee, said handing the executive branch more control over the MBTA “will just mean the T does what’s best for the executive branch, not necessarily what’s best for the riders or the public.”

The Transportation Committee, Kane said, needs to decide what it wants — more transparency or more political integration.

“And to me, those two things are diametrically opposed, and I don’t think you’re gonna get greater transparency by giving the executive branch more authority,” he said. “The fact that the legislative branch wants to cede more power potentially, more authority to the executive branch, baffles my mind. You would think the legislative branch would want more power and more authority.”

Straus said people are confusing the organization — the MBTA — with the goal of creating a single transportation system. If you talked to members of the public, he said, they would not worry about the bureaucratic structure of MassDOT or the MBTA.

“They look to the governor as the chief executive responsible for the transportation system,” he said in an interview. “So I am unabashedly an advocate for a clear line of authority running right to the governor, whoever the governor is, to be responsible for the transportation system.”

Turning to the Turnpike Authority

During the Monday hearing, Straus used the Legislature’s decision to dismantle the Turnpike Authority in 2009 as a successful example of consolidating transportation divisions in state government.

The Mattapoisett Democrat said at one point, the Turnpike Authority made sense to identify, lay out, construct, and operate a turnpike system with its own funding and staff.

“But at some point, it didn’t contribute to the functioning of the overall transportation system,” Straus said. “It may be that we’re at a similar point with the MBTA, that for the sake of the overall transportation system, some of its functions can be performed by other parts of the transportation system.”

Baker said there was a lot of “hoo-ha” about the turnpike discussion during the hearing, a reform he said the Legislature “powered through” and implemented.

“What I would say is that the next couple of years, as they went through the process of dealing with what they committed to, were pretty bumpy,” Baker said. “But I think most people think that process, and where we are today with respect to that issue, is better than where we were before.”

During the hearing, Straus also referred back to the 2015 snowstorms when the MBTA was plagued by delays and breakdowns, saying MassDOT’s Highway Division functioned “very, very, very well.”

“Within MassDOT, we do have the ability to run good transit systems, good transportation systems,” he said. “We really do have to — I think if we’re being serious here and hope to end up with something useful to the public, and to the future safe operations — we do have to, in my view, examine how the T operates in this in this world.”

Over the course of the past 20-plus years, oversight at the MBTA has taken a few different forms. Prior to 2009, the MBTA had a board of directors appointed by the governor that hired the general manager as well as an advisory board made up of leaders from municipalities.

That changed in 2009 when the MBTA effectively became a division of MassDOT. At that time, the MassDOT board of directors oversaw the Highway Division, the MBTA, Aeronautics Division, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, among other things.

Oversight shifted again in 2015 when Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that created the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which replaced MassDOT’s board of directors as the body overseeing the MBTA. The FMCB expired in 2021, and the current governing body, the MBTA Board of Directors, took over.

Flash forward to 2022, and Kane says one solution is to “really make the T independent once again” with oversight from the executive branch and municipalities “and really force them to answer questions about what’s best for the public and the riders, not what’s politically best for whichever gubernatorial administration happens to be in power at the time.”

A budget bill making its way through Beacon Hill would add two seats to the MBTA Board of Directors, one appointed by the mayor of Boston and another appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board.

In a statement to MassLive, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said lawmakers need to focus on the public transportation system, not “more bureaucracy and process to slow things down.”

“The MBTA has unique challenges that deserve specific attention and planning that must come from impacted communities,” Wu said. “It would be a major step forward for Boston and another municipality to have a direct seat on the governing board as the Legislature has recently voted to advance.”

Operations or capital projects?

During Monday’s hearing, Straus asked Poftak and Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler whether the MBTA should “think of itself as an operations entity and less of a capital project entity?”

Poftak responded first.

He said there are opportunities for the MBTA to be “creative and thoughtful” when it comes to large projects but when work needs to be done on the existing system, “the importance of integration with operations is critical.”

“Ultimately, the buck stops with us,” he said. “We turn the power back on, we test the track, we make sure that it is safe for revenue service, and it’s our responsibility to do that. So … there’s surely a role for the T to do that, and I’m open-minded about a further conversation.”

Tesler pointed to the Green Line Extension Project, where he said a “separate, purpose-built organization” managed a large capital project with its own structure, resources, and leadership.

“For large capital projects, I think there’s a couple [of] ways to segment those to provide resources, so it does not become competitive with the other day-to-day needs of a T,” he said. “I think though, the general manager touched on a critical distinction, some of the day-to-day track work that is in the capital area that we need to do that is consistent with the FTA directives is core day-to-day functioning of the T and probably best remains there.”

Instead of conversations about governance structure, Thompson said the MBTA and lawmakers should focus on recommendations issued last month by the Federal Transit Administration along with taking a “serious look” at the operating budget.

“This old school notion of we need to reform, or we need to restructure before we can talk about money has a history of failing in Massachusetts,” Thompson said. “It’s time to just rip the band-aid off and start having real funding conversations.”

Kane said issues at the MBTA have never been about governance.

“It’s about finances. That’s been the case since 2001,” he said. “And rearranging an org chart about who reports to who doesn’t do anything for dollars and cents.”

Straus said the Legislature has provided “a lot of money” to the MBTA.

“If anyone thinks that the Legislature’s only role should be to write the checks, and then sit back and not engage in what is a serious life-threatening, life-endangering system, they are missing the issue,” he said during the MassLive interview. “I strongly disagree with anyone who would suggest that the Legislature might keep its role limited to just as you say, funding operations.”

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