What does Governor-elect Maura Healey want the MBTA’s next leader to be? It’s a fraught decision that will have significant implications for Massachusetts’ ability to combat climate change and its high housing costs. 

All that her campaign will say for now is that Healey wants “a permanent General Manager whose job will be to ensure safety, reliability and accessibility across the system.” 

That, combined with her campaign platform to establish “clear, quantifiable performance metrics” for the T would suggest she’s treating the agency’s shambolic last 12 months as the rider-confidence emergency it is.  

Her platform also pledges the appointment two deputy general managers, one for operations and the other for capital projects, rather than the current one – a welcome step that could help the MBTA walk and chew gum at the same time. The T must offer reliable service to retain current riders, but it also must expand service with efforts like the bus network redesign and electrified regional rail to meet the state’s economy where it’s growing now and in the future. 

To get this ambitious agenda done, it would be a mistake to appoint someone whose only remit is “fix the T.” This type of task definition can lead one into thinking someone from within the agency is the best pick for the job. But fairly or not, the T’s ongoing lack of transparency and ham-handed public communications means the agency’s entire C-suite is currently tainted with the management decisions, like the disastrous “Forging Ahead” pandemic layoffs and service reductions, that  led us directly to the rolling disaster riders experience every day.  

Selection of an internal candidate for the next general manager without a rigorous and transparent explanation of why they will be able to produce different results will show Healey isn’t serious about fixing a system on which much real estate investment relies, and which undergirds the entire state’s current and future prosperity. 

But the next general manager must be more than a mechanic for the system. As Healey herself acknowledges, transportation needs more funding – the T alone needs to hire up to 2,000 more people per federal safety inspectors – and the next MBTA leader will need to fight for those dollars on Beacon Hill, and work to bring the business community onside after a bruising battle over the Millionaires Tax.  

Without more money and a vision for what the system can become, the staff and investments needed to simply return the T to a state of good repair let alone expand it to meet tomorrow’s needs will never materialize, and current employees will remain demoralized and feeling under siege. Under Gov. Mike Dukakis, Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci and MBTA General Manager James O’Leary, the T was a hot career destination for engineers, planners and front-line workers, alike thanks to the vision for a better system that the trio championed. Can that be recreated? 

It’s a difficult set of orders, but Massachusetts and the world has many talented transportation professionals who can achieve it. 

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Next MBTA Leader Needs a Vision

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min