Public Transportation Woes Are Not Just In Boston

Since last winter, whenever you say “snow” in Boston, people automatically think: will the MBTA shutdown? The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce recently hosted a particularly interesting forum on how other cities on the east coast are fixing their public transit systems.  Instead of the usual faces, the panel was made up of the top leadership of these  transit systems and, after just a few moments listening to the presentations, it was evident that Bostonians are not alone in voicing frustrations about the state of their public transit system.  But it was also clear that we are behind the others in addressing the issues plaguing out system.

The panel, comprised of Craig Stewart of New York City’s MTA, Joe Casey the recently retired general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA system, Mortimer Downey the chair of the board of Washington D.C.’s Metro system, and Joe Aiello of the MBTA’s Finance and Management Control Board, shared their insights on what can make or break a transit system.  Issues ranging from funding, long-range financial planning, quality of management, talent recruitment to  employee retention, public trust, and positive pressure from the business community all play critical roles in the process.  Crisis in public transportation is a result of neglect over time and boils over, resulting in what we currently see in many major cities.  Things like chronic lack of investment, poor management, and a culture not conducive to implementing preventative measures, are just some of the contributing factors.

Attracting, retaining, and training talent to build a strong management team is vital to moving a system out of crisis and giving it a sustainable future.  The MBTA’s Joe Aiello pointed to the fact that some of the cost overrun issues plaguing the Green Line extension project came from a lack of staff training for a brand new contracting model.  As for attracting the best leadership to run our transit systems, public transit general managers in other major cities are paid close to $400,000, which is far above the MBTA’s GM pay of $160,000. How can the MBTA expect to attract the talent that it needs to implement the massive changes to the entire system when the difference in compensation that great?

Operating a complex organization such as the MBTA, which serves over one million riders per day, facing major system-wide challenges at every level, warrants  investing in top talent. Doesn’t Boston deserve a transit system that not only reliably operates during snowstorms but in fact gets people to work and home on time! We can and must do better and be ready to bear the cost of world class transit!

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