Responding to a call from US Sen. Elizabeth Warren for “new leadership” at the MBTA, Gov. Charlie Baker defended the public transit agency’s officials and said they should stay.
Asked whether she was calling for the removal of the T’s general manager, Warren reiterated to reporters that she was frustrated amid the coming Orange Line shutdown and interested in “new leadership” due to “year after year after year of failure” at the agency.
The MBTA is under scrutiny from federal transportation safety officials and Beacon Hill lawmakers. The T plans to shut down the Orange Line for a month starting at 9 p.m. on Aug. 19, citing a faster timetable for repairs, rather than spending several years of intermittent closures. A Green Line closure overlaps with the Orange Line shutdown, as well.
Baker, on his way out of a Thursday evening event at the Quincy YMCA, defended Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager of the T since 2019. Poftak is the fifth general manager in the last decade, and served a stint as interim GM in 2017. He also served as vice chair of the MBTA’s oversight board.
“Steve and the team have balanced keeping the system operating and doing literally night and weekend and summer work over and over and over again for the past few years, until recently with very little disruption to the rider experience,” Baker told the Reporter. “There’s no excuse for a lot of the stuff that’s happened lately, and I’ve said that before. But I think they’ve earned the right to follow through and finish some of this stuff.”
Baker, who took the reins of the T in 2015 after a series of winter storms battered the system, said the T is “eight years older” than when he took office.
“It was neglected for a really long time,” he said, referring to previous administrations. “We’ve put billions of dollars into modernizing it and have succeeded in many cases in dramatically improving the performance of the commuter rail and the buses are in much better shape than they’ve ever been in.”
The Blue Line and the Green Line “for the most part are in pretty good shape as well,” he added. “The Orange and Red Line both suffered from the pandemic because all of the schedules associated with when the new trains were going to arrive literally got thrown up into the air by that…I think people will see a very different Orange Line coming out of the shutdown than when they saw going in.”
Asked whether the Red Line will be the next to face a shutdown, Baker said, “I mean this really does end up being a case by case thing.”
With the Orange Line, there is the opportunity to do a “dramatic amount of work in a really short period of time,” he said.
“Admittingly, it comes with – it’s a big pain in the neck for everybody during the disruption. But there’s something coming out the other side that will be dramatically different and better, we believe. The Red Line cars are farther back in the process with respect to when they’re going to start to arrive,” he said, referring to the new Red Line cars that are getting assembled by a Chinese-owned company in Springfield, Mass.
“We’ve done a lot of Red Line weekend work for the past few years,” Baker said. “I don’t want to speak for Steve, but I can tell you there’s nothing immediately planned other than keep doing the kind of work we’ve been doing on the Red Line.”
MBTA officials have been working closely with Boston City Hall to mitigate the effect of the Orange Line shutdown. "I'm focused on making sure this Orange Line shutdown can go as smoothly as possible," Mayor Michelle Wu said Thursday after she was asked about Warren’s comments.
The question of “new leadership” at the T is a “decision or a conversation for the new governor,” Wu added, referring to the November election. Baker is not running for reelection and his term ends in January.
Wu and city school leaders on Friday morning sent a letter to parents outlining options for children taking the T as the shutdown overlaps with the start of the new school year. An estimated 23,000 students use the T to get to and from school, according to Boston Public Schools (BPS).
“Students should plan for delays and ensure they leave additional time to get to and from school,” Wu and school leaders said in the letter. “There will not be any consequences for students' late arrivals, within reason. BPS will plan to provide additional staff support to help guide students who are going to school along their route.”
The letter goes on to list the availability of free shuttles, including a north loop between Oak Grove and Government Center Stations and a south loop between Back Bay/Copley and Forest Hills.
The letter also encourages jumping on the commuter rail, which is likely to be the “fastest way to travel.” Riders can just show their CharlieCard or CharlieTicket to ride at no charge between Zones 1A, 1 and 2. The Providence Line will make additional stops at Forest Hills before heading to Ruggles, Back Bay and South Station, according to the letter.