THE MBTA CAN’T BE MANAGED BY A “NATION-WIDE SEARCH”

Poftak

^ Steve Poftak, seen here, discussing the Commonwealth Avenue bridge re-build, during his stint as interim MBTA CEO. He will now be THE CEO.

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Luis Ramirez is now out as MBTA chief, Steve Poftak is in. No one c an know if Poftak will accomplish would Ramirez could not, but he has at least one major advantage : he knows the MBTA up and down and knows its workers and is known by them. Given the complexity of MBTA operations, and the multifold ways in which its schedules fall short and its tools break down, Poftak’s in-house acquaintance with every thing and everyone has to advantage things.

If Poftak succeeds, it should be a nail in the coffin of the “nationwide search” chimera. If there is any state system inappropriate for outsider management, it’s the MBTA. Why was seeking an outside person ever judged appropriate in this case ? Maybe there are some answers :

At about the same time that patronage jobs ceased to be the political norm, management of major state and city government agencies was given over to a hope and a prayer : the “nationwide search.” No longer would big systems be superintended by locals, men and women who had risen through the ranks. These were seen as beholden to the politicians, who were now, of course, judged bad and dishonest people. Instead, the “nation-wide” search for the best, brightest, and most disinterested outsider would assure the public that big government would deliver effective service diligently budgeted, no waste, no cronies, and no favoritism. At the time, some predicted that such “nationwide searches” would do no better than the old crony methods and might even backslide, but these voices were not listened to.

At the MBTA of 40 years ago it was not at all unusual for political workers to get hired there — as bus drivers, repairmen, fare collectors, what have you. You knew a state legislator with some seniority, you asked him, he “put you on the T.” Not all t workers were hired by patronage, but many were, and it was a damn good job : great pay, great benefits, and no layoffs. I well remember working campaigns with guys who were political T employees. Not surprisingly, this system pissed off those who did not, or could not, get hired for great T jobs, and the same was true of so many other state and city workforces, and during the early 1980s politicians were made — by pissed-off voters — to see patronage as a bad thing. On the T, and in the state’s Courts, political pull no longer dominated hiring, and for the top jobs, it was now entirely off limits.

I think that now, 35 years later, we are free to bring back the tactic of hiring from within; that raising an MBTA deputy to the top job is a good thing. First, it is no favor to ask an MBTA deputy to run the entire system. The salary is high — $ 320,000 — but the opportunities for failure are higher. I feel pretty confident that, with the T, very few voters think that promoting an insider is a bag job. Even with his knowledge of the system, and of its employees, Poftak still has to oversee bus schedules that often  fall short, bus trips that are missed , breakdowns of T infrastructure, ancient Red Line and Orange Line trains, missing line connections, and weather hazards. Hands-on, he will be; he’ll probably be a boost to employee morale; and he will benefit from the coming of new Red Line and Orange Line cars. Other than these, he’ll have to devise a very detailed plan for improved service and make sure all of the public knows of it and accepts it.

What should that plan be ? I would recommend something like this :

( 1 ) schedule fix-by dates for each systemic segment, and stick to it. Be candid with the public that it will take eight more years, maybe, to bring the entire system to “state of good repair.”

( 2 ) If more time is needed, as almost always happens, notify the public of it in advance.

( 3 ) hold public comment hearings, in the neighborhoods, on a regular basis. I would suggest one such every month, location rotating. Poftak himself should be available at these hearings. His top deputy, Jeff Gonneville, too.

( 4 ) increase bus service on major routes. Add additional trains on the Blue Line.

( 5 ) Commit to a Blue Line – Red Line connection and a date for beginning the work.

( 6 ) publish the T operating budget on twitter and facebook. The public has to be made aware of the enormous costs involved in upgrading and expanding T service.

When he hired Luis Ramirez, Governor baker praised the selection, cited Ramirez’s business background, and asserted that after one year most of us would agree with the selection. The opposite proved true. I think Baker has learned his lesson; that with a system as damaged as the T, and as complex and in some ways intractable — even at its best, it’s built for 1980 traffic, not 2018 — it would be foolish to give even the Poftak hire a carte-blanche “you betcha.” The new guy will have to prove himself to a justifiably skeptical public.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

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