The T Needs a New GM — and It Won't Matter Who It Is

Yesterday, Governor Patrick promoted MBTA general manager Richard Davey, making him the state’s Transportation Secretary. Mazel tov, excellent for Davey. Now the T needs to find a new head.

As the search begins, there’s one thing we should keep in mind: no matter who they get to run that thing, it will not fix the MBTA’s problems. Sure, whenever your train breaks down or runs late, it’s easy to get angry at the person in charge — especially when one of those annoying recordings comes on. After all, it is literally the MBTA GM’s job to make the trains run on time. The scary thing is, though, that the T’s infrastructure is in such poor shape and its finances are so screwed up that the agency’s problems are utterly beyond the power of the person in charge to fix.

The MBTA is $8.6 billion in debt, $3 billion behind on its state of good repair funding (that’s the amount of money it would need to spend today just to make everything in the system work properly), and is facing a projected $160 million deficit on next year’s budget. Those numbers are jaw-dropping. Good leadership alone isn’t going to fix them. As I explained in this story from earlier this year, the system and the way it is funded need to be fundamentally reformed.

“If you squeezed all the waste, fraud, and abuse out of the T, it’d still be broke,” is how Stephanie Pollack, the associate director of Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, put it to me when I was working on that story.

So you could go find the best CEO in America to run the T, and while it might help on the margins, it’d do nothing to address the MBTA’s core problems. Now it certainly doesn’t help that we may very well end up with a second-rate candidate because of the state’s salary limitations. But, in the larger picture, it’s really pretty simple: Until the governor and state legislature get serious about providing the funding and reform necessary to fix the MBTA, service will only get worse, no matter who’s in charge.