Embattled transit chief Aloisi quits

4th top official in year to leave

By Andrea Estes and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 12, 2009

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Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., a subject of near constant controversy since Governor Deval Patrick appointed him in January, resigned under pressure yesterday after months of feuding with other transportation officials and elected leaders.

He is the third top transportation official to resign in the past four months and the fourth in a year - raising further questions about volatility within the Patrick administration on a signature issue.

Scrutinized from the start because of his role as a behind-the-scenes player in the Big Dig, he most recently became embroiled in a very public fight to force MBTA general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas, MBTA general manager, out of his job.

Aloisi said in a statement yesterday that he was leaving Oct. 31 and that he did not want to be considered for the top transportation job when a new superagency is created in November to take control of the state’s highway, bridges, and transit systems.

Aloisi declined a request for an interview, but his spokesman, Colin Durrant, said Aloisi looked forward to continuing his work implementing that change until his departure.

Patrick issued a statement yesterday, praising Aloisi for helping make “the most sweeping transportation reform in decades become a reality.’’ But a person familiar with the discussions said the governor had been growing increasingly frustrated with Aloisi for months and stepped up the pressure on him to resign over the past two weeks.

“A decision was made that he was not the long-term person for the job, particularly as transportation reform was gearing up,’’ the person said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

Jeffrey Mullan, executive director of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority since May, has emerged as a likely successor, according to two administration officials. Mullan has been close to Aloisi and served previously as undersecretary of transportation. He did not return telephone messages yesterday.

Aloisi was paid $150,000 per year. Lawmakers expect the new job - which will oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, all state toll roads, and state highways and bridges - to pay between $200,000 and $300,000 annually.

The next transportation chief will be Patrick’s third in as many years.

“The governor couldn’t have a bigger albatross around his neck,’’ said Richard Tisei, the Senate minority leader and a Wakefield Republican. “He’s had the most controversial Cabinet secretary probably in the last 20 or 30 years, without a doubt. [Aloisi has] managed to infuriate just about everybody.’’

Aloisi’s brief tenure was dogged by missteps that embarrassed the administration. Early on, he launched a public tirade against a Globe reporter on a liberal blog. He initiated a messy and expensive buyout of Grabauskas last month. In between, he alienated Senate President Therese Murray when her political support was key to Patrick’s transportation agenda.

“Transportation should be an issue that could be a big plus for the administration,’’ said Stephanie Pollack, associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. “In fact it’s been a big problem.’’

Aloisi’s handling of Grabauskas’s resignation was particularly damaging to Patrick. Aloisi said at the time that Grabauskas was behind an effort to raise subway, train, and bus fares, but e-mails obtained by the Globe later showed just the opposite. In fact, it was Aloisi who had been pushing a fare hike and resisting a plan by Grabauskas to delay one.

Aloisi’s last stint in public service was at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, where he served as chief counsel. He later worked for the agency while in private practice, collecting large fees and crafting the legislation that made tollpayers responsible for much of the Big Dig’s debt.

Despite this, Patrick was betting that his connections in the Legislature and the media could help navigate a tricky path toward an important objective: fixing a transportation system that had been crumbling for decades. But Aloisi quickly alienated Murray, mocking her “reform before revenue’’ mantra as a “meaningless slogan.’’

Murray had “no comment’’ yesterday, according to her spokesman. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo praised Aloisi for managing a complex department at a difficult time.

Though the administration is set to merge transportation agencies and eliminate the politically unpopular Turnpike Authority, it could not persuade the Legislature to approve a 19-cent increase in the gas tax. The proposal has helped lower Patrick’s popularity ratings as he prepares for a re-election campaign.

“He was an odd choice in the first place,’’ said Charles D. Baker, a Republican candidate for governor. “He knew a lot about transportation, but I wouldn’t consider him to be a new ideas guy.’’

State treasurer Timothy Cahill, who this week announced he will challenge Patrick as an independent candidate, called Patrick’s transportation policy very dysfunctional.

“In three years you’ve had two transportation secretaries. It points to the wasted fight he had with Dan Grabauskas, which seemed like a personality disagreement,’’ Cahill said.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray praised Aloisi’s tenure and denied that he had become a political liability.

“With all due respect to all the gubernatorial candidates, this administration, with Jim Aloisi’s leadership, has been able to effectuate something that has been talked about in the corner office for the past 20 years,’’ Murray said. “They can say whatever they want, but this [transportation reform] is something the Patrick administration has accomplished and not just talked about and Jim Aloisi was a big part of it.’’

Despite his many public clashes, Aloisi did have supporters.

Frederick P. Salvucci, the former transportation secretary who has served as Aloisi’s mentor, called him a good public servant, and said he was targeted because he was willing to speak “an inconvenient truth’’ about the need to raise more money for transportation.

“He convinced governor Patrick to propose a significant increase in the gas tax to deal with part of that problem,’’ he said. “He articulated that reform without revenue is meaningless and got beaten up for it, and he attempted to hold hearings at the T to raise fares in order to avoid significant service cuts and that was very unpopular.’’

MBTA riders groups also appreciated Aloisi’s willingness to meet with them regularly. Aloisi grew up in East Boston and spoke frequently about his passion for public transportation.

Last month, when asked about calls for his resignation, Aloisi said it was crucial to him that public transportation advocates had a friend in the administration.

“This isn’t about me. People are trying to make this about me,’’ he said at the time. “It’s about people who use the T and how undervalued and how underserved they’ve been, chronically, for decades in this state.’’