Apr 5, 2023 - News

MBTA's problems go from bad to worse

Illustration of an MBTA sign changing into an emergency symbol.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Just over a week after Phillip Eng was announced as Gov. Maura Healey's pick to lead the MBTA, the agency's troubles have gone from bad to worse.

Driving the news: A new report from a fiscal watchdog group found the T needs to hire 2,800 workers over the next year to be fully operational. That's a lot more than the 1,000 hires Healey planned for.

  • The understaffing crisis is a key cause of the T's "slow zone" safety measures that have frustrated riders with significantly reduced speeds on the subway.
  • To boost hiring, The MBTA said Monday it will raise its signing bonus to $7,500 and apply it to more positions. Healey has already asked lawmakers for more funds to attract new hires.

Why it matters: Hiring is just one of several short and long-term crises Eng is up against as he begins his tenure.

  • Eng needs to win back riders, manage repair projects and try to reform the T's internal culture.

What they're saying: "It's one of the toughest jobs in Massachusetts right now. Possibly even harder than being manager of the Red Sox, with significantly less pay," MBTA Advisory Board executive director Brian Kane told Axios.

  • The MBTA and Red Sox are comparable, he says, since riders and fans hold the GM responsible for anything less than top performance.

Threat level: The T's ridership plummeted during the pandemic but was making encouraging progress until safety problems triggered slowdowns, causing riders to abandon the T once again.

  • Eng will have to manage the agency out of the safety morass and out of federal oversight before trains speed up and riders feel confident to return.

The big picture: Without robust ridership and fare revenue, the T could face hundreds of millions of dollars of red ink.

  • Eng needs to make the case for more tax dollars to Healey and lawmakers, former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi tells Axios.

Separately, Eng will be expected to tackle the workplace culture at the MBTA, something that's bedeviled governors and managers for generations.

  • Kane said too many MBTA workers take a "cover your ass approach" to the job, focus only on the short term and get too involved in internal politics.
  • Part of fixing the culture links back to hiring. Eng needs to find competent project managers for repair and improvement work if the T is going to operate anywhere as efficiently as his previous agency, the MTA Long Island Rail Road in New York.

The bottom line: Eng has a lot to do, and just like the Red Sox, there's no honeymoon for a GM just learning the ropes.


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