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Governor Charlie Baker’s Commission on the MBTA appointed during this year’s disastrous winter “T meltdown” just released its report and action plan after a little more than six weeks of analysis. A cursory reading of the MBTA Panel’s far reaching findings reveals a number of worrisome issues to be addressed. I think the Panel has done a tremendous job in bringing to light many of the issues vexing the T. During my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with two of the Panel members Jane Garvey and Joe Sullivan and can attest to their professionalism, commitment and breadth of knowledge concerning transportation and public policy matters.

The Panel’s recommendations may be found here. http://www.mass.gov/governor/docs/news/mbta-panel-report-04-08-2015.pdf

The report mentions 9 key findings, many of which I can personally identify with having spent seven years in Government & Community Affairs for the T with proximity to leadership. Several of the most bothersome to me include the lack of accountability and lack of customer focus. Although at first blush I can identify most directly with # 4,6, 7, 8 and 9.

When I started my tenure at the T as Community Affairs Director my four person department was structurally situated within the Planning Department. At the time that department was led by individuals with little interest in customer relations whatsoever and they simply tolerated me. As planners they were primarily concerned with planning rather than being bogged down with community relations. I initiated several programs to increase customer-community relations but often faced internal opposition to my ideas. I left the T before implementing many of the goals I had set for the department and agency.

MBTA Panel’s 9 Key findings;

1.UNSUSTAINABLE OPERATING BUDGET

2. CHRONIC CAPITAL UNDERINVESTMENT

3.BOTTLENECKED PROJECT DELIVERY

4. INEFFECTIVE WORKPLACE PRACTICES

5. SHORTSIGHTED EXPANSION PROGRAM

6. ORGANIZATIONAL INSTABILITY

7. LACK OF CUSTOMER FOCUS

8. FLAWED CONTRACTING PROCESSES

9. LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

As many of you know from 1995 to late 2002 I worked for the MBTA (T) in its Government and or Community Affairs Department and here are a few memories I decided to jot down. The year prior to moving over to the MBTA I had been trying my hand at business development and insurance sales at Carlin Insurance of Natick. The firm’s owner Jim Carlin had once served as Transportation Secretary under the late Governor Ed King and later as Chelsea Receiver.

When I started at the T in 95 it was in the midst of cost cutting measures to the tune of 90M if I remember correctly. I was given a staff of three housed within the Planning Department since Community Relations was the ugly stepchild of the T and subservient to the focus on planning. In fairness, I should mention that there was a Marketing/customer service department that handled generic T issues but not community specific matters. I’m not saying that there was never a Community Affairs department before I arrived only that T officials were focused on privatizing, cutting and planning for future service needs and not so much on community relations.

At the time I joined the T there was a great deal of animosity towards anyone starting in a managerial role since so many other positions were being cut at the same time. There was also a tremendous push for the privatization of T services much to the chagrin of unions, long time employees and others opposed to such measures. Fortunately my role had nothing to do with that since I was brought in to try to enhance the image of the T within the “Community”. However, some T staffers were less than friendly towards me until I won them over. I also know that some were never won over; such is life in the often hurly burly world of the government sector.

Each week various Departments including the General Manager’s Office, Government Relations, Marketing, , Public Affairs, Planning and I (the new Community Relations guy) would get together to discuss ongoing public relations issues, crises, ribbon cuttings etc. Those involved would discuss issues with an eye towards promoting the good news and trying to solve the not so good news. While the T officials would gather to discuss these issues we always did so knowing that the Transportation Secretary at the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction (EOTC) and or the Governor’s Office would be anxiously awaiting the resolution to such issues and offering their input behind the scenes. Regardless of the strength and personality of the MBTA General Manager and his or her desire for independence it was clear that EOTC and or the Governor’s Office (and at any time outside influencers) were quite often calling the shots. At least on the larger, more politically sensitive issues.

While I was brought in to expand the Community Relations function there was animosity internally towards my actually implementing any new initiatives since the move to privatize was on everyone’s radar. T officials had various representatives going out and about to discuss privatization but were concerned that if there were too many of us out there publicly we would raise the ire of unions or say something contrary to policy about privatization and attract the media’s interest. Then we did not have the benefit or not of social media and relied upon traditional legacy media and relationships with media representatives.

The challenge for me was to try to raise the Community Affairs profile without spending a lot of money, attracting anti privatization forces, garnering negative media, arousing internal opposition to community affairs or causing too dramatic a change to the status quo. A daunting task at times but one which I was familiar with having served in the Mayor’s Office and later as the Community Liaison for the Central Artery North Area Project in Charlestown the $300M precursor and stand alone project to the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project.

As Community Liaison during the Central Artery North project many of my battles to protect the interests of the Charlestown community (while similarly appeasing commuters who traveled through the project area from the North and South Shore) were internal ones. Battles with department engineers and contractors bent on doing the job, making a profit and running the show without interference from someone trying to slow them down. I was viewed as the individual within the department whose interest in preserving the interests of the community and the commuting public was at odds with those trying to construct the project. So I did have some experience in dealing with internal dissension and I dare say I enjoyed the cat and mouse games where I won many of them and lost fewer. Often I had to be very creative in enlisting support externally to assist me in my internal battles in order to ensure a positive community and public relations experience. More on that at a later date perhaps.

Within a few days of starting at the MBTA, I had analyzed the current community relations program and decided what I needed to do to enhance it both internally and externally without stepping on the toes of my peers in similar departments such as public affairs, marketing or government affairs. I presented my ideas to the General Manager’s staff and they seemed impressed yet still had concerns about my implementing them and dealing with the public during the privatization drive.

Again, these concerns centered around spending money, garnering negative press, impacting privatization efforts, pissing off EOTC, the Governor’s Office, legislators and raising expectations with the public. After one meeting a Public Affairs staff person walked into my office and lambasted me (or attempted to) accusing me of coming in and trying to curry favor with leadership. I stood up and told him to shut the F%$# up and that he was not my boss and had no call to talk to me in that manner and to get out of my office. Needless to say he got up and left. A week or so later he called me one night at home and apologized indicating that he and his boss were angry because the General Manager liked my idea. I accepted his apology and we became friends (I remained guarded) and before I left the T realized what prompted his initial outburst. Each and every General Manager and Administration brings in new people and those who have been there awhile get pushed aside, marginalized and their opinions ignored. As long as you go with the flow and never rear your ugly head and ask to do more you can survive.

I sold the GM’s office and others with my idea of holding community outreach meetings under the name “Talking with the T” that would bring my staff and me to the public inexpensively and innocently. I modeled Talking with the T after the office hours concept that most legislators use in their district to “bring the State House” to their constituents. Again, social media was not in vogue at this time so the public was harder to reach and communicate with. My concept was to schedule a public event somewhat like a coffee hour within various cities and towns in the 78 cities and towns then served by the T. Prior to each event I would identify a site such as a library, town hall, senior center, university or anyplace where the rental fee was cheap as in FREE.

T officials were mixed in whether they wanted me to go out into the public domain while privatizing was in play since they feared I would be a lightning rod for union representatives and T haters (there are a few). However, I convinced them that my concept was not really a public forum but instead an office hours, one on one format. I told them that my plan was one that would allow constituents to sit one on one with my staff and me over coffee (I paid for coffee and snacks) and discuss their concerns out of earshot. I said the T detractors would be hard pressed to make a spectacle of T staff sitting down one on one with seniors, young moms and others hearing their concerns and I was correct.

Since the Talking with the T concept had the blessing of the GM and others I would often be able to hear a constituent’s concern during a meeting and make a call to T staff in various departments (Bus Ops, Rail, commuter rail, police, maintenance etc), Generally we could respond to a constituents concern with one call or if the matter required more action I could at least get the ball rolling. Regardless, we were letting the public know that the MBTA cared, was accessible and despite privatization or other matters we were there to help. I should add hear that there are many T staffers working in the trenches every day to do their best to make the system run and they are very dedicated. I would not have been able to accomplish what I tried to do and succeeded if not for the contacts I developed within each department.

Then I would contact legislators, city and town officials, Senate and Congressional staff and any other officials within the district so as to engage their participation and support so as not to blindside them. When one holds an event or takes an action within a legislator’s hood he or she must make sure at all costs to include them or at least apprise them of your involvement in their community. Some officials chose to participate others kept their distance but all knew they had that option. I worked with MBTA Marketing to create flyers, displays and promotional materials then created press releases subject to approval from the GM, Public Affairs, and EOTC. While informing the media would help us to spread the word about our Talking with the T meetings I still had to get the word out in other ways so used the phone and fax to inform.

Since Boston was the city most impacted by the MBTA and the home of the State House I wanted to make sure that city residents and businesses knew about our meetings. I was particularly sensitive to making sure those in often maligned and forgotten areas such as housing projects were included since I had been raised in Bunker Hill, Charlestown.  So, I arranged a meeting with Mayor Menino’s Neighborhood Services staff and sat down with them to discuss Talking with the T and to enlist their support. I knew from having worked for Mayor Flynn that the Mayor’s Office had an extensive mailing list of residents they kept in touch with via mailings The Mayor’s Office willingly agreed to help me spread the word by piggybacking on their mailing list and including our MBTA meeting flyers which assured the public we were working together and saved the T a lot of money in mailing costs. Needless to say my higher ups at the T were thrilled.

The Talking with the T concept went on for some time then took a back seat to the whims of the Planning Director (my boss) and the Service Planning process where each year the T solicits public opinion regarding service and ways it can be improved, streamlined etc and my staff and I ended up developing an enhanced plan for that process. A few years later Community Relations was removed from the Planning Department which never really embraced it and we were folded into the Government Affairs function much to my satisfaction. I went on to work with elected officials while simultaneously dealing with community relations matters and I like to think my efforts in that department were positive.

While I worked with elected officials from across the state I have to say that some of my best memories involved working with Mayor Menino’s dedicated staff and then State Rep and now Mayor Marty Walsh. Mayor Walsh and his staff were constantly calling to try to resolve community issues and or to bring the T to their community. I used to attend numerous meetings in Dorchester and I would like to think that Mayor Walsh would give me positive marks for my commitment to the public and his constituents. This walk down memory lane was sparked this morning this past winter when I started thinking about the MBTA and all of its troubles related to our record breaking snowfall.

T supporters and detractors, the media, elected officials indeed almost everyone has an opinion on the agency and its performance. Without getting too involved in T history, good or bad management, politics, finances and the like one point I would simply like to make is as follows. In the 1960s the old MTA became the MBTA and the service district was expanded from 14 to 78 cities and towns. When I started working at the MBTA it served 78 cities and towns and by 1999 that service district was expanded to 175 cities and towns or so. Most cities and towns added then were already served by or adjacent to commuter rail lines. It should be noted however that the MBTA did not assume responsibility for local service in those communities adjacent to or served by commuter rail.

Before 2000 the MBTA was reimbursed by the state for all costs above revenue collected (net cost of service). Beginning in mid 2000 the T was granted a dedicated revenue stream consisting of amounts assessed on served cities and towns, along with a dedicated portion of the state sales tax. So as of that point the MBTA then had to live within this “forward funding” budget. Factor in the fact that the MBTA became increasingly more responsible for transporting people to get them out of their cars in concert with construction of the Big Dig and it seems to me that the MBTA was perhaps on a collision course to where it is now.

Without knowing all the details of what has been happening within the T since my departure I have little idea of what has or has not been occurring at the agency? However, it seems to me that expanding from a service district of 78 to 175 cities and towns may have been just too much for the MBTA to handle. Particularly since the T has had to balance among other things enhanced service needs, modifications to accommodate the disabled and other constituencies, contractual demands etc while maintaining its aging stock and numerous other niggling issues. I think the snowstorms of 2015 may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The role of social media and ramping up public comment and involvement likely has played a role in zeroing in on T “inadequacies” but that is a story for another day. I look forward to the MBTA Panel’s recommendations being discussed, vetted and perhaps some implemented.

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