NEWTON — Incoming MBTA General Manager Phillip Eng is walking into an agency where slow zones cover more than a quarter of subway tracks, service cuts persist on heavy rail and buses, and the chasm of a budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars looms just a couple of years away.
His bet is that a focus on the “basics” and empowering the agency’s stretched-thin workforce — plus a healthy dose of what Gov. Maura Healey called a “spirit of optimism” — will begin to turn the tide.
Eng, an engineer and longtime transportation executive who led the Long Island Rail Road for four years, made his introduction to Massachusetts on Monday hours after Healey’s office announced that a months-long search settled on him as the best choice to lead the agency.
He described himself both as a “people person” who would give MBTA staff the support and tools they need to improve from within and also, because of his background in engineering, as someone who has a “need” to solve problems whenever he sees them.
“The status quo is not acceptable, and moving forward, we will be innovative, open to new ideas, and think of outside-of-the-box solutions, but this is also about bringing back the basics,” Eng said. “Our job starts with making sure the T is safe and reliable, especially when it comes to communication. As a commuter myself, I know how frustrating it is when you can’t get accurate information about when your train is arriving, when it’s delayed and how long that delay may be.”
Eng leaned on his specific career experience during his inaugural press conference, pointing out that he started his tenure as LIRR president shortly after that commuter rail agency posted its worst on-time performance in decades and departed having achieved its best-ever performance.
“It had the similar kinds of concerns from the riding public, a lot of distrust of the workforce, a lot of distrust of the service, and people were taking their cars and driving,” he said. “Little by little, we invested in the key things that were causing the most delays to the public. We were not only fixing them, we were addressing the root cause of what created those issues. Sometimes, you need to spend some money to save some money, and we were doing that.”
“It was not just a list of things to fix,” Eng added. “It was a culture change with a new sense of urgency that became embedded in the management, in the workforce.”
Healey, who on Monday called Eng “probably the most important appointment” of her nearly three months in office, said his success at improving the LIRR’s performance and a previous stint as interim president of the New York City Transit agency are “why we have picked him.”
“He recognizes and understands the challenges that we face. He understands the urgency with which we must act, and he’s ready to take on the challenge as he has throughout his career,” Healey said.
Plus, she added, Eng is himself a commuter who rode the Green Line to the afternoon press conference at Newton’s Riverside Station.
After addressing a wall of cameras and fielding questions, Eng and Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca hopped aboard one of the newest Green Line trains to head into Boston, where they toured the MBTA’s operations control center and met with staff.
Their trip traversed roughly two dozen of the 200-plus slow zones in place across the system. MBTA data indicate those restrictions collectively slowed travel on 27% of all tracks as of Monday.
Eng named safety and infrastructure conditions among his top priorities, both of which are firmly in the spotlight following a Federal Transit Administration investigation last year that flagged multiple safety risks across the agency including a massive deferred maintenance backlog.
Another key issue he will face is staffing. The MBTA has struggled to attract enough workers, with recent hiring efforts falling flat, and its short-handed ranks contributing to ongoing bus and subway service cuts.
Healey has targeted hiring 1,000 new workers in her first year in office as a goal, and Eng said he also wants to figure out how to make life easier for staff already at the T, about a dozen of whom flanked him and administration officials at Monday’s press conference.
“How many steps do we have to get something done? Is there a way to streamline that to get to the finish line sooner? So many times in public service, we set things up in a way and it makes sense, and we’ve been doing it for years and years and years, but there’s ways you can do things quicker,” Eng said. “I need to empower staff, I need to make sure that they know that they have my support. If it’s a tough decision, I’ll help make that decision. I’m going to be accountable for what we do moving forward, and they need to know that I have their back.”
The MBTA has received sizable one-time financial injections from the federal and state government in recent years, but operating budget gaps lurk on the horizon with ridership still significantly depleted below pre-pandemic levels.
Amid debate over whether state lawmakers need to rethink the T’s funding, Eng said he will “work with whatever resources are given” to him.
“That’s going to be my job to figure out how to deliver what we need to do, again, balancing the need for priority work, balancing the need for future capital work, and making tough decisions when the budget is tight,” Eng said. “I’m going to be relying on the governor’s support. I firmly believe it’s there. I know that the funding is there. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse not to deliver.”
Eng will relocate to Massachusetts — where his daughter attends Northeastern University — from his native Long Island and start his new role at the T on April 10. That’s the first day of six that MBTA officials plan to take Blue Line trains offline between Government Center and Orient Heights around 9 p.m. each night for repairs.
Healey’s office said Eng will earn a salary of $470,000, plus an annual retention bonus of $30,000 and potential performance bonuses of 10-20% each year.
Eng made a point Monday to pitch himself as a gregarious, outgoing official happy to take on the challenge, encouraging riders to approach him on the MBTA for conversation or to share their thoughts. Eng made clear he’s a fan of the New York Mets, not the dreaded Yankees. And even as he acknowledged the widespread failings at the T, he also sang its praises.
Asked how he rates the MBTA compared to other agencies, Eng said, “It’s the best transit system in the world, and that’s why I’m here.”
The reporter who posed the question pressed for a follow-up: was Eng being serious or sarcastic?
“We are going to work every day to provide the service that the public expects. I had the chance to talk to a lot of riders today, and while they are frustrated, they love riding the T,” he replied. “They are looking forward to us making positive steps, and once we start to show that, I think the frustrations that people are feeling — it will start to turn. It took a little bit of time at Long Island Rail Road, but it did turn.”
Healey, in an apparent reference to Eng’s sparkling review of the MBTA, said later in the event that he “certainly understands the challenges facing the system.”
“I think what you hear from him is a spirit of optimism, and that’s what we need to see,” she said. “We’re never going to get to where we need to be unless we bring that spirit, that aspiration, of optimism and of teamwork. And that’s what Phil Eng represents.”
Some T-watchers cautioned against putting too much stock in the arrival of a new general manager, no matter how impressive Eng’s or anyone else’s resume might be.
Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board that represents cities and towns with T service, said he does not “expect a miracle from Phil Eng.” He pointed to the 2017 hiring of Luis Ramirez as another instance where officials hoped to “bring this outside perspective to bear.” Ramirez left after about 15 months on the job.
“Any change or improvements are going to take a long time,” Kane said. “We cannot dig our way out of 30 years of deferred maintenance in one, two or even three years.”
Still, Kane said he heard from former MTA and LIRR employees that Eng’s reputation “is one of really delivering projects on time and on-budget.”
“That’s really what we critically need right now — Red and Orange Line cars, getting this Quincy electric bus garage off the ground, literally, figuring out how to fix the Blue Line, figuring out how to electrify commuter rail, and I would add ferry boats,” he said. “These are the projects, the kind of day-to-day, back-office, really mundane in some ways infrastructure projects that we need, that the T needs, that riders need, that the region needs, that the economy needs, that our climate needs.”
A day before Healey unveiled her long-awaited GM pick, TransitMatters Executive Director Jarred Johnson penned an op-ed calling for the governor to pause her search and give Interim General Manager Jeff Gonneville — who will remain at the T in a still-unannounced role — time and resources to get service back on stable footing.
The onboarding process for a new top leader, Johnson wrote in CommonWealth Magazine, presents “a recipe for stasis and further dysfunction.”
“Riders deserve a usable, safe, reliable system. A new GM will not magically restore any bus and subway trips, fix any slow zones, decarbonize our buses or trains, or make any meaningful difference to riders’ lives,” Johnson wrote, taking aim at Gov. Charlie Baker appointees who remain on the agency’s board of directors. “Replace the board members with actively involved people who have first-hand experience with the system and who will hold the T accountable. Provide the interim general manager with the resources he needs to address the myriad of issues facing the agency and prioritize staffing the front-line roles that keep our system moving.”
Now that the monthslong question of who has been answered, attention will turn to how much longer commuters need to grapple with the crushing frustration many feel today.
“There’s no question that the challenges before us are great, and we will tackle them together with a strong team, a sense of urgency and an unwavering commitment to customer service,” Eng said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but my pledge to the people in Massachusetts is that you will see meaningful, measurable steps being taken and progress made in short order.”