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Moving with delays

The top posts at the T, Massport are still vacant after a year

BY: Gabrielle Gurley

Both the MBTA and the Massachusetts Port Authority have interviewed candidates for their top jobs, but after a year of searching neither agency appears close to naming executives to run two of the country’s largest transportation organizations.

Since late winter, a preliminary screening committee has interviewed three people for the T job (officially called the general manager/MassDOT rail and transit administrator), according to MBTA board member Elizabeth Levin, the committee chairperson.

Levin stressed that the candidates who have been interviewed are not finalists. “Not all of them may move forward, either for their reasons or for our reasons,” she said. She declined to comment on whether specific individuals are under consideration for the post.

Given the MBTA’s abysmal finances, local transportation experts often point to Jonathan Davis as the strongest in-house candidate. Davis, a longtime MBTA deputy general manager and chief financial officer, is now the current interim general manager. He has been credited with salvaging the agency’s precarious finances for more than a decade.

“There’s got to be someone in charge who can articulate the problems,” said Brian Kane, the MBTA Advisory Board’s budget and policy analyst.  “If you have an acting general manager in place for nine, 10 months, give him the job.”

Davis declined to comment. “That’s up to the board,” he said after an MBTA subcommittee meeting last week. Asked if Davis is under consideration, Levin said that “anything in terms of who is being considered, who’s not being considered, who applied, who didn’t apply, all of that is private.”

The country’s fifth-largest transit system should be a prime destination for a transportation professional wanting to move up the ladder from a smaller urban transit agency, but the general manager’s relatively small salary may be a problem.

“Salary is a challenge,” said Levin. “People know that the position is not high-paying.”

Richard Davey, who oversees all of the state’s transportation agencies as secretary of transportation, earns $150,000. He moved up from the MBTA general manager’s position where he made $145,000, well below industry norms. Davis, the acting general manager, earns $149,130, according to the T.

After the MBTA, the heads of the next five largest transit systems in the country earn considerably higher annual salaries. Beverly Scott, the outgoing general manager of the metro Atlanta transit agency, pulls in more than $300,000, followed by Ed Reiskin, of the San Francisco system, ($294,000); Joseph Casey, the SEPTA/metro Philadelphia general manager ($260,000); James Weinstein, the NJ Transit executive director ($261,400), and Ralign Wells, the Maryland Transit Administration chief ($183,840).

The T’s tattered finances, which are among the worst in the country, make the job even more daunting. The MBTA has required several bailouts by the Legislature over the past decade. State lawmakers have punted the “adult conversation” about financial solutions into 2013. The agency has no readily identifiable pots of money to add new rail lines or rolling stock to entice a forward-looking transportation manager.

“You could put Warren Buffet in as GM at the MBTA, it doesn't really matter unless the fiscal situation is properly resolved," says Jim Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation and a CommonWealth magazine contributor.

The tumultuous departure of former MBTA general manager Dan Grabauskas three years ago is also a cautionary tale about the kind of political hardball that gets played in Massachusetts. The Patrick administration forced out Grabauskas, who was popular with state lawmakers, after disputes over safety and financial issues.

“Our politics like in many…places is not easy,” Levin said. “The person needs to be interested in working with an [older] system like ours. They need to be interested in the kind of change they could produce.”

According to Levin, the furor over the T’s fare increases and service cuts earlier this year slowed down the hiring process as she and the other search committee members – Davey and MBTA board chairman John Jenkins – turned their attention to the authority’s fiscal crisis.

The slow of pace of the MBTA search puzzles Kane, the MBTA Advisory Board analyst. The advisory board suggested that the MBTA board include its executive director, Paul Regan, on the search committee as a public member. Instead, the T board stuck to its original plan: two board members plus Davey, according to Levin.

“No one’s really sure where we are in the process or how it’s going,” said Kane. “[That] speaks to the fact that there needs be a little more openness and transparency about where we are and why we haven’t hired a full-time general manager yet.”

Compared to the MBTA, Massport is awash in revenues and runs like a well-tuned engine. Yet the agency has been operating with an acting executive director since June 2011, when Thomas Kinton retired after the Patrick administration shot down plans for him to receive a $22,000 raise that would have brought his salary to $318,000.

Massport’s board has interviewed a number of candidates and the head of the search committee, Michael Angelini, told CommonWealth last December that he hoped a new executive director would be hired by the end of March. After that target date came and went, the agency hired a new executive search firm, Spencer Stuart, in May and more candidates are being interviewed. Two rounds of interviews were held in June. Another round is scheduled for July 30.

It’s unclear what salary constraints Massport is operating under. Gov. Patrick has tried to bring the salaries of top executives at the quasi-public authorities in line with similar positions in state government. Interim executive director David Mackey, who is paid $192,628, according to 2011 state records, declined to comment. Davey, who sits on the Massport board, declined to comment on either the MBTA or Massport searches.

The absence of a permanent executive director at an agency like Massport is even more glaring than at the T, according to Aloisi. “It has a strong balance sheet and the ability to leverage that in a good way,” he said. “It's got the right board of directors and needs an equally good executive director.”

Homepage photo by Josh Kaufman photography  published under a Creative Commons license.

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