Rick Dimino

Rick Dimino

Despite chronic problems and recent setbacks, the MBTA is still critical to Greater Boston’s future. The regional economy cannot thrive – and many communities are not accessible – without a safe, reliable public transit system. Today, there is great frustration at the status quo, but we should be optimistic that Gov. Maura Healey can deliver real change at the MBTA. Transforming the organization will require new leadership, a new culture and new funding plans. Each of these changes can begin right now.  

The governor is moving closer to hiring the next MBTA general manager. Their appointment should set the tone for rebuilding the system and regaining trust of riders. Securing a world-class transportation and operations expert is essential, and will require increasing the existing salary for this role. Credit to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce for conducting a market analysis that recommends the next GM receive a base compensation in the range of $450,000 to $500,000, which would be comparable to the CEOs and GMs of other large transit systems in North America.  

This level of investment will be worth it because Boston deserves the top talent in the nation. It also makes financial sense in the long-term. The MBTA is facing a multi-billion-dollar funding gap over the next 10 years, for both the capital and operating budgets. Finding the ideal leader for the MBTA will certainly pay dividends considering the larger, ongoing budgetary challenges.  

New Leadership Can Bring Credibility with Riders  

The next GM will need lots of help to succeed. They will need new partners to solve the systemic problems at the T and begin a new philosophy that prioritizes riders. Gov. Healey should take the opportunity to replace the entire MBTA Board of Directors. Gov. Charlie Baker appointed the current seven-member board, and over the past year his selections reversed many encouraging plans and blueprints established by the former governance body, the Fiscal and Management Control Board. Stakeholders would welcome a new board that is more committed to overseeing the agency’s safety and financial needs. This change can lead to a new culture and show the MBTA is starting fresh in 2023.  

This next leadership team will inherit a system in need of physical repair, and riders’ legitimate concerns that the MBTA is unsafe. Welcoming riders back to T should be an immediate priority and will require a sustained communication effort and improved service. Showing improvements are taking place, even if they are incremental, will help to shift public perception. We all understand the MBTA is dealing with Federal Transit Administration safety directives and decades of underinvestment in maintenance. Building a new MBTA will take time, and the public deserves honesty, respect and empathy from MBTA leadership. 

Bus, subway and train service must also become more reliable to show the MBTA values its riders. Better frequency and the elimination of speed restrictions on subway service must be a top priority. Then, the MBTA should offer new promotional fares, discounts that serve important equity goals and free parking to help increase ridership. It might even be time to consider new ways to refund riders if trips are delayed, slow or fail to meet reasonable expectations. The MBTA can prove they are ready for change if they show a new commitment to higher-quality service and higher expectations.  

New Finance Plan Should Include P3s 

Finally, the MBTA will need a new finance plan to avoid a looming fiscal cliff. In less than 12 months, the agency will likely use up all remaining federal COVID aid, leaving its operating budget gap with a $400 million gap. This could grow much worse if fare collections continue to decline. The capital infrastructure needs of the system for new safety requirements, the state-of-good-repair backlog and decarbonization plans will also require additional financial support from the state. Planning for this finance plan will need to begin once a permanent GM is in place, to help gain legislative support. 

This conversation about the financial needs of the MBTA should include an effort to utilize public-private partnerships. Consider the challenges with the bus fleet and the maintenance facilities that will support electric buses: The MBTA needs to convert all nine of their existing bus maintenance facilities, but just one new facility in Quincy is estimated to cost over $400 million. There are serious questions whether the MBTA has the financial capacity and expertise to modernize each facility, too. A Better City has shown that it is possible to build a mixed-use facility at one MBTA-owned garage in Boston, an example of advancing bus system needs, building new housing and saving public funds. P3s can work for the MBTA and should be on the table.  

We need the MBTA to be successful. Under the right leadership, priorities and funding plans, it can be. A safe, reliable and modern public transit system allows Greater Boston to be a vibrant urban area with a strong economy, and helps the entire commonwealth address traffic congestion, housing challenges and statewide carbon emission-reduction plans. This year, despite the difficult times at the MTBA, these straightforward goals can bring about real change and create the public transit system that this region deserves.  

Rick Dimino is CEO of A Better City. 

The Next Steps for the MBTA

by Rick Dimino time to read: 3 min