Heading into a contentious debate over transportation financing next year and the award of a major commuter rail contract, Gov. Deval Patrick has asked the five board members for both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA to reapply for spots on a newly reconstituted seven-member board, raising the possibility of a shakeup.
“I think it’s clear that they will not have all five of us back,” board member Elizabeth Levin told the News Service Thursday morning. “It’s been clear that there will be changes.”
The recently approved MBTA bailout law, which sent $49 million to the financially struggling transit authority, included a provision to create a new transportation board, and last Thursday Patrick sent out letters to the five members, who are all unpaid volunteers.
“As we make appointments to the new Board, please let me know if you wish to be considered,” the one-page letter said, asking board members to make their wishes known by Friday, Aug. 31. Patrick will appoint the board, which will include Transportation Secretary Richard Davey as one of its seven members. Appointments are expected before a planned Sept. 12 transportation board meeting.
Davey, who said it is “good governance” to have the secretary back as a voting member of the state’s transportation board, said the changes were less about the makeup of the board than about shifting the board’s functions and abilities.
“Ultimately, this was not a quote ‘dismissal’. This is a reconfiguration of the governance, so we’re looking forward to appointments and reappointments,” Davey told the News Service. He said the new board will not need to authorize contracts worth less than $15 million, freeing it up to concentrate on weightier, policy issues.
Currently, MBTA contracts worth at least $2.5 million and MassDOT contracts worth at least $5 million require board approval, Davey said.
Current board members serve in two capacities, holding regular back-to-back meetings as both the MassDOT board and the MBTA board. The new board will oversee state transportation as a whole, including the MBTA, further consolidating oversight of what was once a more decentralized system.
The new board will be allowed to meet outside of Metro Boston, which the MBTA board was not, Davey said. Davey said he was unsure how many members would be reappointed to the new board and said he was not sure that all members want to serve another term.
“It has not been decided,” Davey said. Whoever’s on the new board might “be considering [MBTA] fare hikes and service cuts next year,” depending on what the Legislature decides to do about transportation funding — lawmakers are awaiting a long-term transportation financing plan from Patrick.
The law requires that three members of the new board have public or private finance experience, one has public policy experience, one has transportation planning and policy experience, one who is a civil engineer, and the transportation secretary who will serve as an ex-officio.
In addition to searching for a fix to the MBTA’s structural deficit and a system-wide transportation maintenance deficit, the board that oversees the MBTA will be charged with selecting one of two possible bidders to run the commuter rail.
Before becoming general manager of the MBTA, Davey worked for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co., which currently operates the commuter rail and is facing a possible competition from French rail company Keolis.
Levin predicted the governor might appoint someone who is more politically inclined as the Legislature plans to take up transportation financing next year, though she said she doesn’t recommend that.
“It’s not been a particularly political board, and I think that’s actually an asset to us,” Levin said.
The board has one Republican — Ferdinand Alvardo, who is chairman of the Finance and Audit Committee — and one independent, Andrew Whittle, an MIT civil and environmental engineering department head. The other three members are Democrats.
MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Paul Regan singled out Alvaro for praise when reached by phone. “He asks all the really difficult, the sticky financial questions that need to be asked,” Regan said of Alvaro, who is on vacation and could not be reached for comment Thursday morning. Alvaro told The Boston Globe he is skeptical he would be invited back because of past criticisms.
“[I]f the governor decides he is fed up with me, so be it,” Alvaro told the Globe. Davey said Alvaro had been appointed to the board because of his “tough questions.”
“That was curious, because Fred already has been reappointed in the past,” Davey said. “And he was reappointed for that very reason.”
In general, Regan said, a seven-member board is better because it allows for a wider variety of opinions, but the makeup of the board is the most important thing, he said.
“It really comes down to who they put on it,” Regan said.
The current board is a creation of the 2009 transportation reforms that consolidated various transportation agencies. Board Chairman John Jenkins came from the Turnpike Authority board, and Alvaro and Janice Loux came from the MBTA board.
Levin said the past two years have featured a “learning curve,” and said that is valuable experience that would benefit the new board moving forward. While she doubts Patrick will reappoint all five members, she hopes to see them all on the new board.
“I like all my colleagues,” Levin said. “I’d like to see them all there.”
This article was originally published on August 30, 2012.
This program aired on August 30, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.