Massachusetts’ Unlikely Transit Team

The state’s secretary of transportation, Stephanie Pollack, is a liberal in a conservative administration and an advocate in an administrative post. But she’s making it work.
by | April 2016
Stephanie Pollack is a regular transit user, but her favorite way of getting around is walking. (Photos by David Kidd)

When Stephanie Pollack first met with Charlie Baker last year, she figured the new Republican governor of Massachusetts would be too conservative to consider hiring her for his administration. So instead of treating the session like a job interview, Pollack, then a transportation researcher at Northeastern University, decided to use the time to school Baker on how she thought the state’s transportation policy ought to work.

Pollack didn’t figure they would agree on much. The two, after all, were fresh off a disagreement over a ballot measure to decide whether the state should tie its gas tax rates to inflation. Pollack supported the idea; Baker led the fight against it. Voters sided with Baker. Pollack had made her name as an environmental activist with the Conservation Law Foundation, arguing successfully for lower fares on the local transit system and getting the state to add light rail service as part of its Big Dig highway project in Boston. Baker, on the other hand, rose through the ranks of conservative organizations. He was one of the first executive directors of the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, served as a top official for two Republican governors and, just before running for election, headed a health insurance company.

“The first conversation surprised both of us,” Pollack recalls. The two had more in common than they thought. In fact, Baker knew he wanted to hire Pollack as transportation secretary by the end of that first meeting. But he wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. “I actually said to her at the end of the interview, ‘If I offer you this job, my friends are going to kill me,’’’ he says. “She looked at me and said, ‘If I take it, my friends are going to kill me.’” A few weeks later, after several more meetings, Baker picked Pollack for the post. It has turned out to be one of the most consequential decisions of his administration.

“What we bonded over,” Pollock says, “was that we both see transportation as a tool for achieving a lot of other things. It’s a tool for spurring economic growth. It’s a tool for improving people’s quality of life. It’s a tool for helping workers get to jobs and students get to school. It’s not an end in itself. In the profession, there tends to be more traditional thinking that we do transportation for transportation.”

“She’s the right person at the right time,” Baker says, “The only people who think she is unconventional are people who think this is all about Democrats and Republicans.”

Pollack and Gov. Charlie Baker have more in common than they originally thought.

Pollack, who has an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a law degree from Harvard University, also found that she and Baker worked on problems in similar ways. They dive into details, push for hard data and try to view things the way ordinary riders would.

That became apparent during last year’s record-breaking snowfall. It’s a crisis that still defines Pollack’s job to this day. Even before she was sworn in, she worked with Baker on imposing a statewide travel ban in the hours before a historic blizzard. She stood at his side when the governor announced the ban, and at several subsequent press conferences as snowstorms hammered the state again and again. The blizzards punished the Boston area with more than nine feet of snow, crippling its transit system. All or part of the region’s transit services were out of operation for most of February 2015, leaving commuters few options for getting to and from work. Worse, the stress from the storms exposed deeper problems with the region’s transit agency. Fixing the transit system became a top priority and remains one today -- for the new governor and his unlikely pick for transportation secretary.

But it wasn’t supposed to work this way. In fact, Baker originally told Pollack that he didn’t want her spending too much time working on transit issues. In Massachusetts, the secretary of transportation chairs the board that oversees the public transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) or as locals simply call it, the “T.” The board also has to manage the rest of a sprawling domain that includes toll roads, seaports, aviation and driver’s license facilities. In the beginning, Baker wanted Pollack to leave much of the direction of the MBTA to the general manager working under her, so that Pollack could spend more of her energy on, for example, decreasing wait times at the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV), something Baker promised in his inaugural address.

The winter barrage changed that assignment. Or, rather, it added to it. Now Pollack would have to put the MBTA on a more solid footing and do something about the driver’s license offices.

The T had big problems. Its general manager, Bev Scott, announced she was departing even as the agency continued to dig out from the storms, leaving the system without a leader just after it had broken down. The agency’s trains, rails and other equipment were in bad shape and hard to keep operating in cold weather. By one count, the T needed to spend $6.7 billion just to get all of its current equipment in working condition. That tally didn’t begin to address new construction to get workers in and out of booming job centers in an already traffic-choked region.

Finances were another concern. A governor-appointed panel reported last April that it expected MBTA’s annual deficit to nearly double in the next five years, from $295 million in 2015 to $558 million in 2020, in an agency with an annual budget of around $2 billion. With all the bad news piling up, the T also had to win back customers who were fed up by poor service. In an effort to rectify that, the MBTA offered a fare-free day for customers in April and discounts for frequent riders in May to apologize for the winter troubles.

To address these problems, Pollack and the governor have pushed for structural changes. Baker convinced lawmakers to place the T in the hands of a five-member fiscal control board for at least three years to focus on giving the agency a more solid financial footing. At the governor’s request, the legislature loosened a decades-old anti-privatization law, making it easier for the agency to contract out services. And Baker announced a five-year $83 million plan to improve trains, signals, tracks and snow removal service -- a plan it will be up to Pollack to implement.

When it comes to overhauling and expanding the T, Pollack says, "If people want a better system, they have to pay something for it."

Liberal advocates are thrilled to see one of their own at the helm of the state’s transportation department. Pollack is a regular transit user who proudly calls herself an “urbanist.” Although she and her family own two cars, as most suburban families do, her favorite way of getting around is by walking, even if it means braving the bitter Boston cold to get from a meeting with the governor to her office 10 minutes away. Pollack’s priorities have begun to register in many different corners of the transportation department. The highway division, for example, has launched a program to help municipalities create pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly “complete streets.”

“It couldn’t be a more challenging time for transportation in Massachusetts,” says Kristina Egan, the executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a left-leaning coalition. Specifically, Egan mentions the “abysmally low” public confidence in transportation agencies, aging infrastructure and increased demand for service in both high-income job centers and low-income neighborhoods. “I couldn’t think of anybody better than Stephanie to balance those issues.”

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, which Baker helped launch, admits he was “really disappointed” when he heard about Pollack’s appointment. But he adds that “what I’ve seen since she took the helm is someone who has helped to recruit top-notch people to the T and other places, someone with the desire to follow the data, and someone with a can-do attitude.”

As the T goes through a top-to-bottom review of its finances, Pollack the transportation secretary has taken some stances that seem unlikely to have come from Pollack the transportation advocate. The dissonance is most notable when it comes to fare increases and the extension of the Green Line light rail to Somerville and Medford, cities northwest of Boston. As an advocate, Pollack argued against a fare hike and for the Green Line extension. Now, as the appointee of a fiscally conservative governor, she’s pushing for higher fares and questioning the financial viability of the Green Line extension.

Jim Aloisi, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary*, says championing new positions is part of the job of being in the cabinet, regardless of whether you’re working for a governor of the same party or the opposite party. “If you think you are in the governor’s cabinet and can be a freelancer, you are mistaken,” he says. “You have to adhere to the governor’s philosophy.”

Pollack sees transportation as a tool for boosting economic growth and quality of life, not just getting people to work.

Pollack insists, though, that her altered takes on familiar issues aren’t a matter of her mind changing as much as the underlying data changing.

This January, for instance, the T unveiled two fare hike proposals to help cut the agency’s deficits. Fares would rise between 6.7 and 9.8 percent. Riders have chafed at the idea, and the T Riders Union has vowed to fight the move, arguing the state should provide more money instead. But Pollack counters, “If people want a better system, you do have to pay something for it. We think modest, regular fare increases are a good way to go.”

Pollack says today’s situation is far different from the one she faced in the early 1980s, when the T tried to triple its fares -- from 25 cents to 75 cents a ride. Pollack, then working at the Conservation Law Foundation, argued that the huge hikes would hurt ridership. She secured an agreement with the agency that, if ridership dropped by more than 10 percent, it would roll back its fares to 60 cents. The agency said the number of passengers dropped by 9.9 percent, but Pollack dug into the data and proved that the decrease was much larger. The T rolled back its fares.

“While the T was not able to triple fares at a time when both jobs and population in the region were stagnant, that is very different than a 9 percent increase in fares when the economy is booming,” she says. “The model is saying, ‘Maybe we’ll lose 1 percent of our riders [with the fare increases].’ But what I know for a fact is when they raised fares two years ago, ridership went up.”

Similarly, Pollack says the calculations over whether to build the Green Line extension have evolved as circumstances have changed. As an advocate, Pollack pushed the state to include the project as part of the Big Dig, the massive highway tunnel project built to ease congestion in and around Boston. She insisted the Green Line would mitigate the air pollution the new highways would cause. But at the time, the 4.7-mile light rail extension was expected to cost $375 million, Pollack says. Even accounting for two decades of inflation, that’s nowhere near the $3 billion that it was anticipated to cost before the MBTA froze the project in December to get spending under control.

“One of the problems we have,” Pollack says, referring to transit and highway projects generally, “is that we look at projects and we make decisions about whether the costs are worth the benefits. Then, the benefits don’t really change. They are what they are. But the costs go up and up and up, and we never go back and say, ‘Are we still right?’”

The halt in construction and planning for the Green Line extension is meant to answer that question. Pollack says there’s a chance the MBTA could abandon the effort altogether, although that seems unlikely. Personally, she says, she hopes the project can go forward. If it doesn’t, the MBTA would have to give up $1 billion in federal funding and would have wasted the $742 million already spent on the T’s only rail expansion currently in the works.

In the meantime, the MBTA will look at reducing expenses by simplifying the designs of new stations. It will explore whether municipalities or other outside organizations can help pay some of the construction costs. When all that is done, it will present a new budget to the board, which will decide whether to continue with the project. “I hope it will be an example of what we’re trying to do more broadly,” Pollack says. “One of my highest priorities, even in the depths of the winter snows last year, is to transform the way we make decisions not about projects but about investments. We need to think about the system as a whole. We need to think about every dollar we spend on capital as investment.”

Seeing the agency’s expenditures as investments, rather than projects, she says, helps remind people of how diverse the portfolio really is. The MBTA has to make spending decisions about highways, rail lines, buses, bike lanes and walkways. Those pieces have to work together as a network to realize the maximum return. Looking at transportation spending as investments, Pollack says, helps people spell out the returns they hope to get and follow up to see whether those returns actually materialize. “The return on investment in transportation, whether it’s the Green Line extension or another one, is not just measured in how many people physically use it. It’s also measured in improvements to the economy, decreases in people’s commuting time, creation of new jobs and reduction in greenhouse gases.”

With that in mind, Pollack is trying to change the way Massachusetts decides which transportation projects to pay for, based on quantifiable criteria. It’s similar to efforts now underway in North Carolina and Virginia. One of the goals is to factor in opportunity costs. So if the state, for example, consistently built roads instead of transit, the model could show how the transit system would deteriorate even as the highways improved.

Pollack is a big believer in the power of using better data. Everything from RMV wait times to commuter rail schedules can be improved.

Spend a little time with Pollack, and you’ll notice very quickly how fixated she is on data. For one thing, she frequently checks her iPhone to pull up the wait times at the state’s 30 RMV offices. She monitors not only the average time people are waiting, but how many of them get out the door in 30 minutes or less. Baker and Pollack tout the fact that the number of people who finished within a half hour grew from 59 percent in November 2014 to 74 percent a year later. And they want the number to grow even higher.

By tracking its own data, the agency learned that the reason wait times were so long was that workers would fall behind during the morning surge, and remain behind schedule for the rest of the day. So it trained its workers in how to eliminate the line of people, often dozens long, waiting outside when the doors open, sending each of them to the right place within 10 minutes.

The RMV also hired a consultant who specialized in line management to draw on lessons from banking, health care and other industries in minimizing wait times. The consultant built a computer model of a registry office based on data collected from an RMV branch that could predict how changes in the office affect wait times. It could control for whether the office was fully staffed, or whether it was late in the month when the number of customers normally surges. Now many branches use practices familiar to customers at Apple stores or other big retailers. Visitors are met by a greeter and sent to separate queues depending on how complicated the customer’s business is.

Pollack has pushed for better results using better data in other places, too. MBTA officials knew, for example, that there were often delays on its commuter rail lines, which are run by an outside company. The agency pushed the company to provide more specific data than just average wait times. What it discovered was that most of the delays occurred on just a few lines. Better information makes those problems easier to address, and it raises red flags if the MBTA sees delays on a line that is usually on time. “Transportation tends to think of data as operating data. It’s data about how the system works from the inside,” Pollack says. “I’m much more interested, and the governor’s much more interested, in data from the perspective of the customers who are using the system.”

Changing that mindset is something that would be nearly impossible to do from the outside, even for an accomplished advocate and policy analyst. “Being an advocate is more fun,” Pollack says. “Being in government is more important.”

*This story has been updated from the version that ran in the April print magazine to reflect the fact Jim Aloisi, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, does not, as stated, chair the MBTA's fiscal control board.