Anybody who thinks a new governor will solve the T’s problems is engaging in magical thinking.
The MBTA’s manifold woes stretch back decades and it should be clear by now they are beyond the capability of any single leader, however well intentioned – here’s looking at you, Gov. Charlie Baker – to set things right.
So, what’s to be done?
While as corny as it may sound, it will take a team effort – and a lot more and tougher oversight – to get the T back on track.
“We need interlocking levels of oversight,” Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, told me last week. “No governor and no administration is exempted from a share of the blame. I put the legislators in this as well. They kicked the proverbial can down the road until there was no more road left.”
Kane’s group represents the local governments whose residents are served by the transit agency.
For starters, the state legislature needs to step up. The recent oversight hearings on the T’s troubles, the first in many years, was a step in the right direction, if extremely belated.
But if anything is going to change, this can’t be a one and done.
Legislative leaders need to step up and take some responsibility for fixing the T, and for the decades of neglect that have led to near-daily mishaps, breakdowns and occasionally full-blown tragedies.
It’s been too easy to step back and let various governors take the blame as the T has increasingly gone off the rails after decades of underinvestment in everything from track upgrades to new rail cars.
However, not only do key committee chairs in the House and Senate need to hold more hearings on the T, they also need to focus not just on new trains cars delivered and signals fixed, but also on what federal transit investigators have called a “lax safety culture.”
And that is likely just tip of the iceberg when it comes to the T’s dysfunctional work culture, with complaints of a cover-your-ass attitude that discourages trouble-shooting and punishes whistle blowers.
Local Media Must Get Savvier
Then there’s the local media, which does a reasonable job covering runaway trains, fires and collisions, but has had a poor record overall looking at the big and longer picture when it comes to underinvestment in the T and its sad but predictable consequences.
Sure, when things go wrong at the T, columnists at the Boston Globe and the handful left at the Boston Herald are happy to pile on the succession of MBTA general managers and whoever is governor at the time.
But there has been little, if any, effort to hold legislators accountable for its role in this slow-moving, decades-long train wreck, even though everyone knows that it’s the House and Senate leadership that really calls the shots in Massachusetts.
Finally, maybe it’s time to look at whether the new MBTA Board of Directors, appointed by Baker last year, are up to the job of riding herd on the T.
The new panel was created to replace the old Fiscal Management and Control Board, whose mandate has run out.
Formed in 2015 in the wake of crippling T shutdowns during a particularly snowy winter, the FMCB met on a nearly weekly basis and pushed hard both for improvements and answers from T managers.
By contrast, the T’s new board of directors meets just once a month and has been notably more deferential to the powers that be at the T and the Baker administration.
Now, I have nothing against golden retrievers, but the job of whipping the T into shape requires a bulldog. And the new MBTA board is very definitely not that breed.
Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at email@example.com.