Wu names her pick to represent Boston on MBTA board

Mary Skelton Roberts, an Orange Line rider who works in the clean energy sector, is Mayor Wu's pick to represent Boston on the MBTA's board of directors. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Mary Skelton Roberts, an Orange Line rider who works in the clean energy sector, is Mayor Wu’s choice to represent the city of Boston on the MBTA’s board of directors.

Boston gained a board seat through a provision in the $56 billion state budget signed by Gov. Maura Healey earlier this year. Wu, a public transit advocate who also rides the Orange Line and made fare-free public transit a plank in her campaign platform, had pushed for the Boston seat.

Roberts, who lives in Jamaica Plain and holds a master’s degree in city planning, is a senior adviser to the Climate Beacon Project, a new Boston-based nonprofit which aims to accelerate towards a “clean energy future.” She is also a member of the Governor’s Council on Latino Empowerment and worked for the Barr Foundation, having focused on modernizing transit systems and making communities more walkable.

“She brings a lot of expertise in transportation and deep connections to community,” Wu said.

The Roberts appointment comes as the MBTA is struggling to provide rapid, reliable service, and federal regulators are scrutinizing the agency, citing it for safety lapses.

In October, the MBTA plans to shut down the Red Line’s Ashmont and Mattapan sections for track work geared toward lifting speed restrictions on the tracks and buffing up the worn-looking stations at JFK/UMass Station and Savin Hill, which have been dogged by crumbling staircases. T officials say the effort will squeeze six months of night and weekend work into 16 days, starting Oct. 14.

Wu and Roberts individually recalled running into each other on the Orange Line over the years. “That is the most important kind of expertise for this kind of job, understanding the direct impacts when the system is working or isn’t,” Wu said of Roberts’ experience as a commuter.

Roberts, who also rides the No. 39 bus, which runs from Forest Hills to Back Bay, is expected to join the board when it meets later this week. The volunteer position has a four-year term.

“We’re in this moment where what we decide to do with our public transportation is going to make or break the future of this city and this commonwealth, and this is the time to shine a spotlight on why we have to get this right,” Roberts said.

The MBTA board is mostly appointed by the governor and chaired by Thomas Glynn, who served as general manager of the MBTA under Gov. Michael Dukakis and CEO of Massport, which oversees Logan Airport, under Gov. Deval Patrick. Other members include Monica Tibbits-Nutt, Healey’s acting secretary of transportation; Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch; Mass. AFL-CIO vice president Robert Butler; commercial banker Eric Goodwine; former Lynn mayor Thomas McGee; and Chanda Smart, who has worked for Gillette and American Express, among other companies.

City officials and Roberts will have a “long list” of topics for every board meeting, based partly on what is up for discussion on the agenda, according to Wu. Both Wu and Roberts said bus service, and improving riders’ experience through traffic signals and dedicated lanes, will be a key focus area, due to the overlap as buses fall under the MBTA’s purview and the streets belong to the city.

“We’ve got to lean into the bus,” Roberts said.

Wu, who personally attended the lengthy MBTA board meeting in August, indicated they will also be pushing the agency on fare policy.

Mayor Wu at MBTA meeting Aug 24 Mike Mejia.pngMayor Wu at the August meeting of the MBTA's board of directors. (Image via Mike Mejia/Mayor's Office)

Wu noted when the Orange Line shut down for month-long repairs last year, the commuter rail was essentially free, and ridership numbers soared. “Interest is there when the financial barriers are reduced,” Wu said.

Roberts called fare-free public transit “long overdue.” While she was at the Barr Foundation, it funded a two-week pilot that lifted fares for Silver Line buses in 2017. “I’d like to see it more often,” she said.

The city, in concert with the T, is currently running a pilot program for three fare-free bus routes: the 23, 28 and 29, which run through Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. The pilot, paid for by the city, is scheduled to end on Feb. 29, 2024.

After Healey signed the budget with the Boston board seat provision in August, the Wu administration put out a public call for names and ideas. About 150 people submitted ideas touching on specific lines, routes and signage, and about 100 expressed interest in the board seat.

Wu hopes to keep the people who responded engaged in further conversations as Roberts takes her seat on the board. “Now that we have direct representation on the board we truly want this to be a seat that reflects the entire city’s hopes and needs when it comes to public transit,” she said.

Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter