Back On Track: The Reconstruction Of The MBTA

Last year’s infamous, record-breaking winter delivered the decisive blow that finally pushed the MBTA over the edge, as buses and subways alike broke down, causing countless trips to suffer spontaneous delays and cancellations.

As daily commutes turned into innumerable hours of frustration, two things became clear to commuters in the Boston area: the winter tested the strength of their transportation system, and it floundered under immense pressure.

The collapse of the MBTA last winter was not induced merely by Mother Nature. It was the culmination of years of structural inadequacy and decay that had, by the time the first snowflake dropped, already bent the system to its breaking point.

Among the frustrated commuters was future Chief Administrator of the MBTA Brian Shortsleeve, who is also my cousin. Although he is adamant about not playing the blame game with regard to the system of complete disrepair he was thrust into, the findings produced by a panel of experts that reviewed the system indicate that, ultimately, it was the chronic fiscal inconsistency and dysfunctional leadership that caused the T’s problems.

The severity of the fundamental issues exposed by the failed “stress test” of last winter demanded immediate and radical change in the basic structure of the MBTA. In response, Mass. Governor Charlie Baker has collaborated with Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack to oversee a complete change.

When Shortsleeve became the chief administrator in July, he joined General Manager Frank Depolla and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville in the ranks of the completely restructured MBTA leadership team.

The explicit allocation of roles and responsibilities in this system demands accountability from those appointed to manage it—something lacking during the previous board.

After graduating from Harvard Business School and serving as an officer in the Marines, Shortsleeve worked at the consulting firm Bain & Company, and then as a managing director at a venture capital firm called General Catalyst Partners. Over the course of his career in business, he has acquired a unique ability to repair and develop the fiscal viability of companies.

It is this skill that Governor Baker hoped to apply to the pervasive financial issues crippling the MBTA by appointing him as chief administrator this year.

The MBTA has, in the past, simply not been managed or structured to function as a viable business with customer obligations, administrative accountability, and fiscal responsibilities. The new leadership, with Shortsleeve at its helm, is designed to redefine the structure of the MBTA as a self-sustaining business.

After almost six months on the job, Shortsleeve confessed that he has been surprised by the difference between the private and public sector.

Specifically, Shortsleeve admitted that he is not accustomed to “how long it takes to get things done” in such a slow bureaucratic system. It appears Shortsleeve has found out, as so many have in the past, how unconducive the public sector is to the changes required for the establishment of fiscally viable business-oriented systems.

This challenge has not detracted from his determination, as he remains vigilant in revamping the capital program of the MBTA to make it more efficient.

In its action plan submitted in April, a special panel of transportation experts commissioned by the governor to review the MBTA identified, among other key issues, “a severe imbalance between costs and revenue” as the crux of the financial challenges Shortsleeve has been tasked to address.

According to the panel, the disparity between revenue and expense costs has been increasing steadily for over a decade and is on pace to amount to $295 million in 2015 and grow to a staggering $558 million in 2020 if nothing changes.

According to Shortsleeve, it is not necessarily a deficiency in revenue, but rather a surplus of spending that is the most significant area of concern. The severity of what Shortsleeve defines as a “cost control problem” in the operating budget of the MBTA has made it the first priority of his fiscal restoration efforts.

According to Shortsleeve, a conclusive five-year plan outlining this fiscal restoration is still being developed, but will definitely be rolled out in 2016.

Even without this master blueprint, major steps have and will continue to be made by the MBTA. Recently it invested $83 million in improvements and additions to its arsenal of snow-removing equipment and kick-started its “Winter Happens” campaign to increase the communication between the T and its riders.

More improvements to machinery will be made continuously, as $7 billion have been allocated by the state to fund such efforts.

Although the monumental task of completely repairing the system has not yet been overcome, the establishment of this new and firmly structured leadership team is a meaningful first step.

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Senior Staff