IN NAMING MBTA chief Richard Davey to oversee the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Governor Patrick has sensibly picked an able executive who knows all too well what it’s like to run a big agency under tough conditions. But Patrick should also understand that no secretary can manage away the financial woes that are strangling the Commonwealth’s transportation system. The math doesn’t work. Billions of dollars in debts from the Big Dig and other projects have kept the state from adequately maintaining the roads and bridges and transit networks that it has, much less making the improvements needed in a 21st-century economy.
The challenge for Davey is to keep the system running safely, in spite of its empty coffers. The challenge for Patrick is to persuade the Legislature and the public that there’s a crisis - one that can’t be solved by deferring maintenance, refinancing debts over and over, and resorting to all manner of one-time budget fixes.
Davey’s recent career has been a study in trading one intractable problem for another. Before taking over as general manager of the MBTA, he headed Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, the company that runs the T’s commuter rail service. That system, like the T as a whole, and like the transportation system as a whole, has long suffered from service disruptions, equipment troubles, and labor disputes. At the T, Davey won praise as a genial, reassuring presence - and for new safety initiatives, expanding efforts to get real-time information to consumers, and greater visibility in the field.
At the state Department of Transportation, he’ll replace outgoing secretary Jeffrey Mullan, who implemented a 2009 transportation-reform law that created the mega-agency out of several other transportation entities and has overseen successful initiatives such as the current Fast 14 project, which replaces one decrepit bridge on Interstate 93 every weekend. But after a heavy light fixture fell onto the roadway through the Big Dig earlier this year, it created a public-relations disaster that exposed a lingering aversion to accountability within the agency.
The transportation system’s financial woes only reinforce its bureaucratic dysfunction. Good leadership on Davey’s part will help. But only Patrick has a profile high enough to persuade the public of the depth of the problems in the state’s transportation system and then put forth a long-term finance plan to solve it.