How do transit agencies weather a crisis? In February 2015, the public transit system in Boston completely shut down due to heavy snowstorms. As a result, the general manager resigned and oversight of the MBTA was delegated to the newly formed Fiscal and Management Control Board. Under the board’s leadership the past five years, the agency has advanced projects that riders advocated for. In this episode, FMCB Vice Chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt reflects on the 2015 crisis and the parallels to 2020. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for the MBTA and every other transit agency. Monica shares how agencies will begin to re-think operations to prioritize operator and rider safety in the future.
How do transit agencies weather a crisis? In February 2015, the public transit system in Boston completely shut down due to heavy snowstorms. As a result, the general manager resigned and oversight of the MBTA was delegated to the newly formed Fiscal and Management Control Board. Under the board’s leadership the past five years, the agency has advanced projects that riders advocated for.
In this episode, FMCB Vice Chair Monica Tibbits-Nutt reflects on the 2015 crisis and the parallels to 2020. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for the MBTA and every other transit agency. Monica shares how agencies will begin to re-think operations to prioritize operator and rider safety in the future.
“It became very clear that the built space creates a lot of the inequalities that exist within our society, at least within the United States. So then it's how do you bridge that gap? And it was very clear that transportation was the way you did that.”
Monica was the recipient of the “Good Governance Award” at TransitCenter’s First Annual Frequency Awards. To view Monica’s acceptance, click here.
Disclaimer: Political views raised by guests on the podcast do not reflect the views of TransitCenter.
Music: “Comma” - Blue Dot Sessions
Hosted and edited by Kapish Singla
Produced by TransitCenter
Please note that transcripts are generated by a combination of automated speech recognition software and human transcribers. There may be errors in the text.
Kapish From TransitCenter, this is High Frequency. I'm Kapish Singla.
In February 2015, the public transit system in Boston completely shut down for the first time. Two heavy snowstorms made it impossible to clear train tracks in city streets. But something transformative came of the crisis. The city's transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, restructured and it was now under the control of a five person board: the Fiscal and Management Control Board. And under that board, riders of the system have benefitted. In the past five years, the board has voted for projects that advocates have fought for.
But of course, we're now in a new kind of crisis: coronavirus. The MBTA, like every other transit agency, wasn't prepared for this scenario. And they were quickly tasked with procuring personal protective equipment and adjusting service to accommodate workers making essential trips. To learn more about how the MBTA came out of 2015 and how the agency is thinking about operations in the coming months and years. I spoke with Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a board member on the Fiscal and Management Control Board. Monica has been an important place for rider friendly policies during her tenure on the board and has pushed the agency to prioritize racial equity in its policymaking.
Kapish: Monica, where I'd like to begin is your childhood. A couple of years ago, you wrote a piece in Architecture Boston in which you talk about how public buses gave you access to a better education. As a teenager, you write: "That bus changed my life. It gave me access to resources, books and lectures otherwise reserved for much wealthier students. It put me on the road -literally - to becoming the first in my family to attend college and then graduate school." Will you share more about that experience and how it's shaped your own approach to decisions around transportation planning?
Monica : Buses changed my life. Transportation changed my life from a very early period. I grew up in a very small, poor rural farm community and there were a number of schools around, some better than others. And as we were kind of looking at this. My parents found a school. The biggest problem was it was a significant distance in time on a bus to get there. And then when I would get there, I mean, it was just amazing. It was a really nice school. Everything was brand new, brand new textbooks. And I think being able to go to that school, there were no longer built-in limitations as to what I could do with my life. And so I think for me, the bus was kind of that first entry point into a better life. It was just such a simple act that someone had done to change my life. It then became: how do I then make the lives of my friends, my family, my neighbors better? It just became very clear that the built space creates a lot of the inequalities that exist within our society, at least within the United States. So then it's how do you bridge that gap? And it was very clear that transportation was the way you did that.
Kapish: And one of your current roles is that you're the Vice Chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board for the MBTA. There is a story to how that board came to be. Can you orient us a little bit? It's 2015. Boston. The city is smacked with this series of snowstorms and public transit is completely shut down for over a week. How would you describe what's happening then? What came of the crisis?
Monica Yeah, 2015. It was a pivotal moment for us. We knew the first big storm was coming. You know, they had the projections for what the snowfall would be. We exceeded that by feet, and we do not get that level of snow normally. When we got the first snow storm, the first thing that we obviously had to do was clear the tracks. As we were starting to kind of get a hold of it and starting to get some of the tracks cleared. We got hit with another storm. Probably a couple days into it, it was just very clear that we could not clear this. We just couldn't do it. And so we had to shut down pretty much everything. Most agencies do not plan for that storm. Obviously now we plan for all sorts of different things because of climate change. But back then, we just didn't have it.
When this was all happening, a number of other things were occurring from a political standpoint. Basically, tons of people were being fired and a lot of other people were just kind of paralyzed with indecision as to what to do. And so coming out of that, the Governor did basically a full top down look at the agency to not only figure out how this happened, but why it would have happened in the first place. The governor decided to do was to create a five person board: Fiscal Management and Control Board. And instead of kind of your traditional political appointees to the board, they were subject matter experts.
Kapish [00:05:14] And in the years since its formation, the board as a whole seems to have made some fairly rider-centric decisions. I'm thinking both about the Better Bus Project, which is a multi-year project to improve bus lanes and stops, as well as the vote to transform the commuter rail network into more of a regional rail. What was the vision behind those votes?
Monica [00:05:34] We wanted to make the system better and we knew what the pain points were from a customer's standpoint. And I think when looking at the bus, hearing the numerous complaints from people looking at the on-time performance, looking at the infrastructure, it made it very apparent and easy for us to say that we needed to focus money on that. It carries one-third of our ridership. We needed to be dumping money into the bus fleet. We needed to be dumping money into the infrastructure, the bus stops and figuring out how to actually move people quicker.
And so that's when the dedicated lanes, the queue jumps and all of those things came together. And that wanting to focus on the biggest issues our riders had, I think is what led to a lot of these. So, I think one of the other issues we had is with the commuter rail and with the rail system. You can go multiple directions, but you can't move around the system. And that has been, I mean, that's been an issue that has been identified decades ago. So when we were looking at it just like: well how do we actually tackle this? What is that going to look like? And how do we make sure that plays well with the decisions we're making on bus?
And so that was where that whole transformation idea came together, because while we will only be here for a certain amount of time, transit works in decades. And if we didn't make that decision now, this was never going to get fixed.
Kapish [00:07:04] On that point of transit working in decades, I'm reminded of when you spoke at a TransitCenter event about how the MBTA has become more honest about the fact that it hasn't prioritized racial equity in its past. How did the agency come to that realization?
Monica: I mean, I think it's something anyone that has really been paying attention, living here has been very aware of. We are in an incredibly segregated region. You know, looking at the employment patterns, housing patterns, the difference between the school districts. It's very clear that there are lines have been drawn. And owning that ugly, ugly history and making that kind of the inspiration for what we were going to change because we've been ignoring these communities for so long. I think the other thing is, as a board, it was important for us to say this, to not gloss over it, but to say: "These were racist decisions." Here are some decisions we made more recently that are also racist and inequitable. Now, how do we address it? We recognize the problem. Now, how do we fix it.
Kapish [00:08:12] It's great to hear about how the board and agency have operated over the past few years. But of course, we're in a new crisis and there are lots of unknowns as the agency deals with coronavirus. What are some of the most pressing issues that the MBTA is now tasked with?
Monica [00:08:28] I mean, there's just so many of them. I mean, you know, as I've mentioned, the budgetary issues. How are we going to get enough revenue to keep the agency running? And I think that takes a very large backseat to the safety. How do we keep our operators safe? How do we keep our customers safe? Public transit is absolutely essential for a lot of communities. It's essential here to move the doctors and the nurses and the researchers and everyone that is working so hard to save us. So we have a responsibility to make sure that we can run enough services to address that. But the more people you have on these services, the more contact people are having. And the way our operational plans work. They did not account for this. From 2015, we're ready. We're ready for a blizzard. Bring a blizzard on.
We didn’t plan for a pandemic. We just didn't. No one did. And so I think it's a very similar situation as 2015 that we're trying to figure out how you operate in this new environment. And then you add the additional complexity of having to keep people safe and keep them healthy. And I think that that is such a huge focus right now is: How do we actually do that and how do we build a system for a completely different way of life? Because it's not like, oh, everything's going to be fine. This is 12 to 18 months of completely changing how we live. And public transit, being the backbone of our communities is going to have to change to make sure that we can keep people healthy, employees and customers, but continue to serve the communities as people start to come out of their homes. And that is really tough. And I think as you look at frontline employees who are essential at these transit agencies and have to show up every day. Seeing the rates of how many of them are getting sick, all in the pursuit of saving our communities. So how do we protect them better?
How do we find a way to get all the resources we need to protect them better? You know, money used to be the biggest issue for transit agencies. No one ever thought it would be: gloves. And so I think as a board, it's obviously trying to respond to that, but also making sure that we have enough resources to respond to respond to that, that we have a plan for if we need to put additional service on. Do we have enough operators? Can we keep people safe? How often are we cleaning the stations? Just every single thing that you have to consider in running a public transit agency has to change.
Kapish [00:11:20] And you mentioned that the MBTA is now forever prepared for something like heavy snowstorms. But I'm wondering, are there any processes that were put in place after 2015 that is helping navigate the board during this current scenario?
Monica [00:11:36] Yeah, I would say, honestly, the biggest thing is we have traditionally had an operations control center which all agencies do. Coming out 2015, we actually created an Emergency Control Center that brings in every single head of every single department into the same room to be making decisions in real time. That structure has been the most helpful thing that we built because it means that you're not having only one person making one decision that only impacts one sector. You have everyone from communications to operations to facilities and maintenance, all communicating with each other because those channels have already been used and created. That structure did not exist prior to 2015. If we did not have that coming out of 2015, this would be virtually impossible.
Kapish: Thank you Monica for your time.
Monica: Of course, this has been fantastic. I really appreciate it.
Kapish [00:12:37] This June, the Fiscal Management Control Board is scheduled to dissolve. Both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the governor have submitted proposals to renew the FMCB. However, neither proposal to renew some version of the board has been voted on. If there is no action on this matter in the coming weeks, transit riders will lose the only oversight body that is solely focused on assessing MBTA decision-making.
That's all for today's episode. I'm your host, Kapish Singla. This conversation is part of the event's program at TransitCenter, a foundation that works to improve transit in cities across the US. For more information, please visit transitcenter.org