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After Winter Woes, New Board Takes Control of Boston Transit

Historic snowstorms brought the city's buses and trains to a standstill for weeks. Is new leadership enough to get the agency back on track?

Five months after winter storms brought Boston's transit system to a standstill, Massachusetts is asking a group of five people to fix it.

The to-do list for the the newly installed board is daunting. Besides better preparing for winter storms, the beleaguered Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) must figure out how to upgrade aging equipment, shore up funding, modernize its purchasing practices, make its workforce more efficient and win back customer loyalty.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a first-year Republican who pushed for a control board, called its creation "an important step toward delivering accountability for taxpayers and riders." But transportation experts disagree as to whether changes to the governance structure will be enough to turn the agency around. MBTA, which is often called the "T," declined to comment.

Under the new arrangement, the transit agency will remain under the state Department of Transportation, but will have its own board. "This notion of five good experts focusing on the T over a three-year period is definitely necessary," said Richard A. Dimino, the president and CEO of A Better City, a group that represents businesses and institutions in the area. "With the control board in place, with the powers it has, there's a significant opportunity to get this T righted and, hopefully, restore public confidence in the system."

But Paul Lewis, an expert with the Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation who has studied transit governance structures in several major metropolitan areas, said the Boston area already had good regional oversight of the system. "A lot of Boston's governance structures are pretty strong," he said. "The issues they had this past winter were not tied to governance. [They] came down to the fact that they were trying to run very, very heavily loaded trains with lots of people on a system that is very old and desperately needs repair."

There is no dispute that much of the agency's equipment is old and needs to be repaired or replaced. The price tag to bring the entire system up to a state of good repair would be at least $6.7 billion, which includes $2.6 billion to upgrade its vehicles and $1.3 billion to modernize its signals. At the same time, the agency also runs annual budget deficits. A governor-appointed panel reported in 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. Passenger fares only cover 39 percent of the agency's operating expenses, compared to 44 percent in Chicago and 53 percent in New York.

Dimino suggested that the control board's first priority should be to develop a capital improvement plan. After that, he said, the board should focus on improving procurement processes, so it could better use design-build contracts to save money or take advantage of the loosening of a controversial anti-privatization law to explore public-private partnerships.

Creating the control board is one of several actions Massachusetts took in response to debilitating storms. Blizzard after blizzard battered Boston this winter, forcing huge disruptions to the area's rail services. All or part of MBTA's rail services stopped running for nearly three weeks in February, leaving commuters few options for getting to and from work. The agency's general manager stepped down this spring and has yet to be replaced. The MBTA offered a fare-free day in April and discounts for frequent riders in May to apologize for the transit's troubles.

While Dimino is encouraged by these initial steps to better prepare the agency for next year, he worries that there is still no plan to finance transportation improvements. "One thing you can always count on in Boston is that we will always have winter," he said, "and it always seems that winter is not so far away."

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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