Phillip Eng, a longtime engineer and former president of the Long Island Rail Road, will become the next top leader at the MBTA as Gov. Maura Healey’s administration sets out to put the ailing transit agency on firmer footing.
Healey’s office announced Monday morning that it settled on Eng, who retired from the LIRR in February 2022 after four years at its helm in which the commuter rail system reported its best-ever on-time performance. The state will pay up for his services, as Eng could earn more than $500,000 per year.
His appointment ends a monthslong search process that began before Healey took the oath of office.
“Phil Eng is the proven leader the MBTA needs to improve safety and reliability across the system and restore the public’s trust,” Healey said in a statement. “He understands that a functioning transportation system is essential to a functioning economy, and he has a track record of taking the reins of struggling public transit systems and dramatically improving service. He also takes a collaborative approach to his work and maintains open lines of communication with customers, workers, businesses, local officials and communities.”
He is scheduled to start at the MBTA on April 10, taking over an agency at a time when service continues to deteriorate, post-pandemic ridership is languishing, budget gaps loom on the horizon, and hiring efforts to address staff shortages have stumbled.
Eng will also be in charge of steering the MBTA through its ongoing response to last year’s Federal Transit Administration investigation, which flagged a range of safety risks including a massive deferred maintenance backlog.
In a statement provided by Healey’s office, Eng declared, “It’s time for a new way of doing business at the MBTA.”
“As an engineer, a transportation professional for 40 years, and a commuter myself, I’m laser focused on finding innovative solutions to complex problems and approaching them with a sense of urgency that always puts the customer first,” Eng said. “I’m also committed to supporting the hardworking employees who keep the MBTA running and ramping up hiring to ensure that we have the workforce in place to deliver the reliable service that riders deserve.”
The Healey administration will make Eng one of the highest-paid transit agency chiefs in the country, if not the outright top earner.
Eng will receive a salary of $470,000, and he’ll also be eligible for both a $30,000 “annual retention payment” and a “success bonus” worth up to 10% of his salary in July 2024, up to 15% of his salary in July 2025, and up to 20% of his salary in July 2026, a Healey spokesperson said.
That reflects a sizable raise over former MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, who in 2022 received a bit more than $339,000 in base pay plus $78,585 in one-time bonuses.
“We found this to be the right level to ensure we were able to attract strong candidates like Phil and compete with other major transit systems,” said Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand.
Healey’s office on Monday declined to provide any details about how many candidates applied for the job or how many she personally interviewed.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce previously urged the Healey administration to pay up for the next leader of the T, recommending a base compensation between $450,000 and $500,000.
GBCC President James Rooney praised the full package Healey provided Eng, describing himself as “pleased the governor was bold enough to take whatever criticism comes with that because we need this in this moment.” He pointed out that, before Poftak’s four-year tenure, the T churned through eight different general managers in about 10 years.
“The lack of leadership stability is part of the reason we’re in the position we’re in. Locking someone in through a retention bonus is important, and I’m glad that’s in there,” Rooney said in an interview. “It gives me the sense it’s not a person that’s going to stick around for a year or two and then be gone.”
“I hope a year from now, two years from now, we’re paying every penny of that performance bonus because that means the business community and commuters are getting what we deserve,” he added.
A member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Eng spent much of his career working for the New York State Department of Transportation in a series of roles including construction supervisor, chief engineer and executive deputy commissioner.
He joined New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest transit agency in the country, in 2017 as chief operating officer. Eng oversaw procurement of a $540 million mobile ticketing contract, according to Healey’s office, and served a stint as interim president of New York City Transit, which manages the city’s bus and subway service.
In April 2018, Eng took over atop the LIRR — another division of the MTA — where he managed 7,600 employees and a $1.6 billion operating budget. The MBTA budget this year is about $2.55 billion.
Unlike the T, which provides a combination of subway, commuter rail, bus and ferry service, the LIRR runs exclusively commuter rail train service primarily aimed at linking New York City and the myriad suburbs that stretch eastward across Long Island.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, the LIRR averaged nearly 240,000 riders on a typical weekday, according to data tracked by the American Public Transportation Association. Over the same span, the MBTA’s light and heavy rail, commuter rail and buses collectively provided more than 718,000 trips on an average weekday.
He joined construction management and engineering firm The LiRo Group as executive vice president in August.
Eng is no stranger to stepping into the top job at a transit agency in crisis.
His tenure at the LIRR started one month after New York’s comptroller published a report declaring that the agency in 2017 “had its worst on-time performance in 18 years.”
During the nearly four years with Eng at its helm, the LIRR achieved its best-ever stretch of on-time performance in 2020 and then broke that record again in 2021, according to Newsday. Both of those years saw significantly reduced ridership due to COVID-19.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who had been a vocal critic of Poftak, said Monday that “new leadership at the T is exactly what Massachusetts needs.”
“I commend Governor Healey for her swift action to hire a MBTA general manager with a demonstrated record of significantly improving transit systems,” Warren said in a tweet. “Dedicated workers and every day riders deserve a safe and reliable T.”
The MBTA GM search process began in December, before Healey took the oath of office, when she tapped Krauthamer & Associates to lead a nationwide search.
It reflects the first major personnel announcement Healey has made related to the MBTA, other than Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca, since her term began. Healey has not opted to replace any members of the MBTA’s board of directors, who other than Fiandaca were all appointed by former Gov. Charlie Baker.
Healey still has not named a new transportation safety chief, a position she said she would create and fill by March 6.
Jeff Gonneville, a longtime MBTA deputy GM who has been serving as interim leader since the final days of the Baker administration, will remain at the T “and assist with the transition to new management,” Healey’s office said. The governor’s office did not specify what role Gonneville will hold.
“Certainly on behalf of the MBTA and the MBTA team, we’re excited to have a new general manager joining the team and he’ll be bringing with him decades of transit experience, transportation experience, to our organization, which we’re certainly excited for,” Gonneville said at a state budget hearing Monday.
Eng, a Long Island native, currently resides in Smithtown with his wife, Carole. He plans to relocate to Massachusetts for his new job, according to Healey’s office.
Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and Fiandaca hosted a press conference with Eng at 2:30 p.m. Monday at Riverside Station in Newton.
Colin A. Young contributed reporting.