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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis June 17, 2011
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Transportation Reform in Massachusetts: On Track for Success
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

Kicking off APTA’s 2011 Rail Conference in Boston, MBTA General Manager and Rail and Transit Administrator Richard Davey introduced his boss, Jeffrey B. Mullan, secretary and chief executive officer of massDOT. After jokingly noting that he (Mullan) had a bus waiting outside to take all the Canadians home (he being a Bruins fan) and observing that a newspaper article said of him: “Finally, a transportation secretary who talks as if he’s from Massachusetts,” he talked seriously and earnestly about how Massachusetts “is home to some of the most significant transportation innovations in history, including the first American subway system. To deliver more and better service for our customers – that’s what the massDOT is all about.” Mullan said, “The new massDOT is on the way to a successful path to fundamentally transform how the state government does the people’s business.”

He gave a brief history of transportation reform in the state, and said that the gap between “what we have and what we need is $20 billion over the next 20 years.” Before Gov. Deval Patrick implemented this new transportation program, Mullan explained, different modes were siloed and many heads of these agencies were not even speaking to one another. This led to widespread calls for a new system to “do anything,” Mullan said. He described how their work in transportation reform is framed by three overarching concepts:

* We will run transportation like a business, implementing strategic decision making for the long term;
* We will operate as one—one agency with one goal. “This required breaking down the silos over such things as lack of understanding on how our customers use the system,” he said. Also, the safety of the public must be paramount; and
* We will make accountability and transparency the centerpieces of transportation reform. 

Mullan talked about the goal of earning back the people’s trust and faith, and how implementing improved customer service was a key element in reaching this goal. massDOT has a website, a transportation blog, a Twitter account, and it began an initiative called “How Can I Help You Today?”

He noted that the agency has worked at improving employee morale through such efforts as a Transportation Roundtable—convened monthly so employees can speak directly with senior leaders.

“We have empowered our employees to engage in, feel responsible for, the decisions we make. For too many years, our organization has been managed in a top down control manner. Once armed with a clear vision and central mission, with the knowledge that so long as they give their best, I have their back – this organization will thrive,” he said.

The governor’s decision to make investments in the state has resulted in one of the largest public works initiatives in its history– in highway and public transit systems. “Indeed,” he said, “you cannot drive or ride a bicycle or ride a subway in any corner of this state without encountering a construction crew.” Further, he noted that administrative red tape has been reduced by more than 66 percent.

“All that I describe and all that we are working for is focused on regaining the citizens’ trust in us,” Mullan said. “We are building a program to last. As we approach our two year anniversary, massDOT is still a work in progress. What we have all in common [with other systems] is that we must address these challenges that we share, and recognize that they are a generational responsibility.”

Mullan then introduced Davey, who spoke candidly about how he perceived his role in public transit. “The old model—‘survive, don’t thrive’—has been rejected,” he said emphatically. He said his agency is focused on “safety, customer service, our people, fiscal responsibility, and innovation.” Safety, he said, is a top priority of the MBTA. “But guess what, platitudes will get you nowhere. What we’re working toward is to breathe life into [safety policy and procedure] documents, to imbue safety into our entire organization ... We now have a good faith safety challenge policy, where employees can question any task they feel is unsafe without fear of retribution.”

MBTA’s safety department is developing metrics to see how it is performing. Davey noted that already, injuries are “trending down.” He then asked: “What is our endgame for safety?” And answered: “To create a positive peer culture—for when I [or any other management leader] is not around, when I’m not looking.”

At the heart of building the public’s confidence, he said, is great customer service. To that end, MBTA began holding manager sessions at stations in April 2010 and launched a Twitter account last year. Another MBTA example of “back to basics” with its customers is its “95 and 5 initiative,” where a team responds with substantive answers to 95 percent of inquiries received within five days, and Davey said that they are tracking close to that goal.

When it concerns employees, Davey said: “I’ve got a phrase I use when I’m out talking to our employees. ‘General managers come and go, but trains and buses always run.’” Too often, he said, employees had been left behind when it came to communicating with and training them. “We are working very hard to listen to our people,” he said, adding that the monthly roundtable has spawned many mini-roundtables.

Fiscally, Davey said MBTA is working hard to manage its budget, noting that one savings was transitioning employees to a statewide healthcare plan that will save $30 million annually. He said they are also studying ways to reduce and/or contain costs of paratransit services.

Davey talked about MBTA’s latest innovative practices, which included opening up internal data to third party software developers who created a program that answered “every bus rider’s question of ‘where’s the bus?’” But he noted that “innovation is more than just providing real-time data,” and talked about how customers could now pay by phone, apps, or text for parking – and receive a proof-of-payment receipt, and how the agency has expanded its Charlie card to other systems “seamlessly.”

Lastly, Davey discussed MBTA’s green innovations, which include finding alternative energy sources, including wind turbines. He added that MBTA will soon launch an initiative soliciting proposals from the private sector to implement solar panel systems.

He summed up by saying: “For me, notwithstanding the many challenges we face at MBTA and in the industry, I think it’s a great time to be in public transportation. Because the number one issue I hear is ‘I want more. More train and bus service, more commuter rail service.’ “There isn’t a private sector company in America,” he said, “that wouldn’t want that ‘problem’—that customers want more.”

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