Poftak Resigning In January From MBTA’s Top Post

NOV. 1, 2022...MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak will step down from the transit agency's top post in January, ending a four-year tenure dotted with a handful of major accomplishments as well as harrowing failures.

Poftak announced Tuesday that his last day on the job will be Jan. 3, 2023, two days before the winner of next week's gubernatorial election takes office. In the two months until then, Poftak said he will focus on "preparing for the transition to a new administration and to new leadership here at the MBTA."

He told MBTA workers he will take "great pride in what we have accomplished together" over the past four years, a stretch that included a scathing federal investigation of the T's safety failures and the long-awaited opening of the Green Line Extension, which itself was shut down briefly for maintenance.

"We kept service going (and made it better) through a global pandemic. In a world where a lot of people stayed home, the MBTA was out there serving our transit dependent customers," Poftak wrote in a letter to staff. "And while we know we have more work to do on safety, we have made great strides as an organization, building staffing, expertise, and above all, commitment to making the system as safe as it can be."

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who sharply questioned Poftak last month at a hearing about the MBTA's ongoing failures, called his resignation "long overdue."

"We now have a critical opportunity to make much-needed changes and ensure our public transit system is safe, reliable, and first-rate," Warren said in a statement. "With visionary leadership, sufficient resources, and effective oversight, we can get the T back on track for its riders and workers -- and the people of Massachusetts deserve nothing less."

Selecting new leadership for the MBTA already appeared to be a likely step for the next governor, and Poftak's announcement pushes that task up the to-do list for Geoff Diehl or Maura Healey.

The next GM will have to grapple with the aftermath of a Federal Transit Administration investigation and the price tag -- which could total hundreds of millions of dollars -- of making the necessary changes to fix immediate safety problems and restore former service levels.

That person will also face major staffing challenges. By the FTA's estimate, the T is already as many as 2,000 employees short of the workforce it needs, and current MBTA leaders envision bus system changes that will require hundreds more people, all in a job market where the agency has struggled to attract and retain workers.

On top of that, MBTA financial officials expect the agency will face an operating budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars as soon as next year. Lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker have agreed to steer more than half a billion dollars in one-time aid to the T already, but they have shown little to no interest in rethinking more permanent funding mechanisms, although an income surtax on next week's ballot is one option.

A former research director at the Pioneer Institute, Poftak took over as general manager in January 2019 after Baker picked him to replace Luis Ramirez. Poftak at the time had spent four years as vice chair of the MBTA's management board.

Poftak's time as general manager will last almost exactly four years, marking the longest continuous tenure for an MBTA chief since Daniel Grabauskas in the mid-2000s and the third-longest since 1989, according to records kept by the independent MBTA Advisory Board.

Between Aug. 1, 2009 and the start of Poftak's permanent tenure, the T churned through eight different general managers, plus a two-month stint featuring Poftak as acting GM.

That consistency often drew praise. In their Aug. 31 report about widespread safety problems at the T, FTA investigators noted that "all levels of the organization" voiced appreciation for having a leadership team remain in place without repeated turnover. LivableStreets Alliance Executive Director Stacy Thompson said Poftak was "a consistent voice who stepped in when other people were unwilling to do it."

MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane, whose group represents cities and towns that help fund the T, described Poftak's legacy as "one of stability."

"Stability at the top, continuity at the top and leadership at the top is something that the T desperately needed, and he certainly has delivered that," Kane told the News Service.

The MBTA has remained in an unpleasant spotlight for much of Poftak's time as GM.

A string of incidents in 2019, including a derailment that impacted Red Line service for weeks, prompted the Baker administration to convene an independent panel, which concluded the agency had a "questionable" approach to safety. And this year, after another string of events including a passenger's death due to a Red Line malfunction, federal investigators intervened and ordered a suite of fixes to address persistent safety problems.

Between those safety-report bookends, the COVID-19 pandemic decimated MBTA ridership and the fare revenue it brought, pushing the T's already-precarious finances toward the edge of a fiscal cliff.

Both Thompson and Kane said they do not believe blame for those issues should fall entirely to Poftak.

"It is undeniable that the governor and the Legislature play a bigger role in the problems with the T than any general manager is going to solve on their own, which is why this has to be a top-three problem for the next governor," Thompson said. "We need a strong governor, and we need a Legislature that is willing to talk about finances instead of throwing out random ideas about restructuring."

"I'm not going to say Steve was perfect, and I don't think Steve would think he was perfect, either. I think it's easy to blame the guy with general manager attached to his name to deflect from the lack of leadership we saw at the legislative and administrative level," she added.

Thompson said she wants Poftak's successor to prioritize staffing up, improving transparency and communications, and making a case to Beacon Hill that the T needs additional funding.

Kane said he hopes the next general manager will focus more on the day-to-day operations side of the MBTA, calling it "desperately what we need next."

"I think Steve has done what his political bosses asked him to do, which was spend tons and tons of capital money to try to get the system into a state of good repair quickly and try to get those Red and Orange line cars delivered," Kane said, referring to a project to replace two of the subway fleets with brand-new vehicles. "There never has been a directive from on high to run the T day-to-day well."

Poftak earned a base salary of $324,800 in 2021, according to public payroll records maintained by the state comptroller.

"Steve brought long term stability to the T when it was sorely needed and under his leadership the MBTA has upgraded more infrastructure and vehicles than during any prior period," Baker said in a statement. "The T workforce showed up every day during the pandemic when most could stay at home, and thanks to Steve's leadership during that period, Steve and his team have continued to build a better T every day."