Metro

Adrian Walker

Fixing the T will take more than just tightening our belts

In June, crews worked to repair the damage after a Red Line train derailed.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File
In June, crews worked to repair the damage after a Red Line train derailed.

When it comes to transportation, bad news has become the only news.

The latest is that safety takes a back seat to other priorities at the MBTA. That was the conclusion announced Monday by a panel of experts hired by the agency to study its operations.

What they found was not pretty, and it wasn’t about the usual service delays we all complain about every day. Rather, their study found that a well-intentioned desire to improve the agency’s finances had come at the expense of public safety — an unacceptable trade-off.

Advertisement

The study was commissioned in the wake of the Red Line fiasco last summer, in which a train derailed near JFK Station and hit a shed that held essential signal equipment — hampering service for weeks.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

That could be dismissed as an accident, or bad luck. Not so for the findings that the agency simply hasn’t invested enough — either in money or attention — in day-to day operations. It describes an agency in chaos.

Governor Charlie Baker has always sold himself as a man who knows how to fix problems in state government. But fixing one problem isn’t supposed to cause a raft of others, and that’s what seems to be happening at the T.

This might be just another case of state government falling short, except that we happen to be in a full-blown transportation crisis. Pushing drivers to the MBTA and the commuter rail has been touted as a huge part of the long-term solution. But that solution only works if the T does. Right now — according to its own experts — it doesn’t.

“Sometimes you can be penny wise and pound foolish, and sometimes you can lose sight of why it exists and what it’s meant to do,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the Transportation for Massachusetts Advocacy Coalition.

Advertisement

To his credit, Baker seemed to make little effort to push back on the report’s findings. But it’s clear that the agency needs a major course correction.

The first thing the MBTA could use is more stability. The report noted that the current general manager, Steve Poftak, is the ninth since 2010. That has contributed, it found, to serious morale issues — which might be expected in any outfit where bosses, and priorities, change on a yearly basis. Maybe it’s time to stop firing general managers after every other snowstorm.

Another recommendation from the experts: fewer meetings. Since the advent of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, the T’s staff has spent far too much time preparing for and sitting in meetings. Not that the Control Board hasn’t done its job well, as far as it goes. But all that time devoted to fiscal management has come at the expense of the other things those employees do, the panel found.

Left unsaid, I think, is the real Faustian bargain here. This administration loves the idea of saying the T is in far better fiscal health than when it took over, and it has a stack of metrics that supposedly support that. Safety is not so easily measured or boasted about. But downgrading operations has left us with a transit system that really doesn’t run any better than it used to, and maybe not even. If it can’t reliably and safely get people around, what’s the point?

Certainly, addressing our transit blues will require more than improving operations. Adopting every recommendation here won’t cure the problems caused by hundreds of thousands of new cars on the roads. We need big thinking, as well as common-sense improvements.

Advertisement

But this is a powerful rebuttal to the administration’s insistence that the T is, fundamentally, sound. No, it’s fundamentally a mess. It needs better management, a clearer sense of mission, and yes, probably more cash.

By imposing financial discipline, the Baker administration has successfully logged some easy victories. But really fixing the T — not just claiming to — will mean taking on tougher challenges.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com.