Interview Les Trains: Joseph Aiello, Chairman of the Finance and Management Control Board
The Tax Review and Management Board was formed in response to operational and management failures of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority exposed by a harsh winter in Boston in 2015. Joseph Aiello was appointed chairman and chaired the FMCB for six years until ‘at the expiration of the board of directors on June 30. 2021, after improving the agency’s debt and finances, increasing capital spending and reforming its management team. Previously, Aiello was a partner at Meridiam, a private equity firm that invests primarily in infrastructure projects, but had worked for the MBTA in construction and development more than 20 years previously. This interview with The trains has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: What was the situation like when you chaired your first FMCB meeting in July 2015?
A: The headline was that the T melted during the snowstorm. What we found was that there had been a long and persistent deterioration in T’s social capital. Operating procedures at T, human resources at T, and culture of T had all been allowed to deteriorate. during a previous 20-year cycle.
Q: What was your first priority?
A: The first thing, as president, that I had to make sure that each of the board members felt that they had a voice, that we had woven together five strangers and that we could act as a team, and that we could have disagreements in public as we are required to do. Right behind, there was a movement to make sure the audience felt he had a voice. So we created an extraordinarily transparent process to make sure people knew what was going to be on the [FMCB meeting] agenda in advance, to make sure we have enough time for public comment and that we show that we have listened.
Q: One of your first problems concerned the extension of the green line tramway to Somerville. How did the board approach this?
A: The T had signed a full funding grant agreement with the [Federal Transit Administration] for this project by stating that with the contingencies and all the rest, the project could bring in less than $ 2.3 billion. By the time we got our first briefing on this, estimates were skyrocketing to $ 3 billion with great uncertainty about everything.
We felt that this project was a very important project that needed to be saved, but it required drastic measures. We got rid of the consultant team and we disbanded the construction management team, brought in outside engineering firms, outside law firms, people [who] had never worked for the T to look that cool.
Restoring a project that we were on the verge of losing was going to be important not only for the community but for the T, to show that the board had confidence that the organization can complete a very difficult project. and can do that well. And that sent an important signal to the staff.
Q: In 2015, the commuter rail system had high costs, used 40-year-old locomotives, and the performance was dismal. How has this changed?
A: The commuter train system always worked the same [it had] since the early 1960s. And the reason behind this is that the delivery of system services has always been contracted out to a private company. Thus, the staff rewrote the contract every five years, never realizing that there was a lag between the crucial innovations that could lead to great gains in productivity and improved service compared to the length of the contract. No supplier could influence vehicle purchasing decisions and indicate productivity, as any gain would occur outside of the contract.
It’s not the current game at T. They understand better now. The rail system is changing dramatically. You will see a completely different product in the next 10 years.
Q: The board was supposed to expire in 2020, then the pandemic hit, and you were asked to continue for another year. How did you react to the crisis?
A: The first thing was to make sure that we could operate safely from an employee’s point of view. And then the second was to understand it from the passengers’ point of view. So focus on the bottom line at the start and focus on public health and safety first.
We were just reactive in the very short term. And then we started to see that those people who had to keep working were very dependent on the bus system, but not all bus lines were created equal. There was therefore a redeployment of services in these corridors to ensure that we could serve them.
We entered a heavy environment of executing as directed on everything. The starters from the different platforms would call immediately, âHey, we’ve got an increasingly busy train. Take another train out of the yard. This is not the typical culture of a transit system. Transit systems are usually those big, heavy things where they maybe change an operating plan once a year. We literally did it day to day, week to week.
Q: What did you take away from your experience at the FMCB?
A: I grew up on the subway, but when you are in the shoes of a chairman of the board when the organization is in crisis and when the world is in crisis, you start to understand really deeply [that] a public transport system is the backbone of a competitive, liveable city that has just gotten to work and needs to work for everyone.
The MBTA is as important as any institution to civic life in the greater Boston metropolitan area. I have learned an increased need to focus on people with limited means who really depend on public transport.
Q: What do you hope to see for the MBTA?
A: There is no doubt in my mind that the T needs to be more and more present in the mobility choices people make in the future. We simply can no longer ignore the fact that the T needs to attract more runners in the long run. It needs to decarbonize its own operations as quickly as possible and invest in resilience. There is a huge climate change agenda ahead of it, but it will be a key tool. Public transport must become an increasingly important part of the mobility solution for the region.