Gov. Deval Patrick last week named Richard Davey, the general manager of the MBTA, to fill the state’s top transportation job, putting him at the helm of a sprawling bureaucracy that Patrick said remained “overburdened” with debt from the Big Dig project.
Davey will succeed Jeffrey Mullan on Sept. 1 as Secretary of Transportation and chief executive of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, with oversight of key public assets including highways, public transportation and airports.
Patrick lauded Davey for his commitment to safety and customer service while head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and said his “energetic leadership style” would enable him to continue implementation of transportation reform as head of MassDOT.
The responsibilities of the job have multiplied in recent years as Patrick moved to consolidate many of the state’s formerly disparate transportation agencies.
Mullan announced plans earlier this month to leave the $150,000-a-year post. He said he would return to the Boston law firm of Foley Hoag, where he had been a partner before joining the Patrick administration in 2007.
Mullan’s final months in office were marred by controversy over the collapse of a 110-pound light fixture inside a Big Dig tunnel. No one was injured, but officials including Mullan came under criticism because the incident was not publicly disclosed for weeks. It was later revealed that nearly a month went by before Mullan himself was told of the problem.
Mullan told reporters last Thursday that his departure was “not about the lights in the artery tunnel,” but about the desire to move on to a new challenge.
Patrick lavished praise on the outgoing secretary, saying Mullan had overseen a record amount of investment in transportation infrastructure, significantly reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts and putting more people to work on transportation-related projects than at any time in the state’s history.
Davey, 38, has led the MBTA since March 2010. He previously served as general manager of Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, a private firm that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
As transportation secretary, Davey will be forced to grapple with revenue shortfalls that could worsen if federal deficit talks lead to even more reductions in transportation subsidies.
While the federal government funded the bulk of the Big Dig, Patrick said last week that the state’s share of financing for the massive Boston highway project continued to be a drain on the overall transportation network.
“We’re dealing with a transportation system that is overburdened with Big Dig debt and that has put a tremendous strain on the operating system throughout,” he said.
The governor said he remained open to new revenue options, but added he had no immediate plans to seek a gasoline tax increase. He said he did favor the gas tax because its revenues are dedicated to transportation programs.
Patrick said he selected Davey after a “brief and focused” search for Mullan’s successor.
Davey, who earns $145,000-a-year as head of the MBTA, has spearheaded efforts to create new revenue sources for the transit agency but has also conceded that a fare increase might be necessary next year to help offset a projected $161 million operating deficit. He said the T had gone five years without a fare hike, the longest period of any major transit system in the U.S. Ridership on the system has grown significantly in recent months as rising gas prices pushed more commuters toward public transportation.
Davey said it was too early to say whether as secretary he would push for higher turnpike tolls or raise other fees for the traveling public.
As head of the MBTA, Davey moved to begin replacing an aging fleet of commuter trains that frequently broke down over the winter, causing long delays for passengers.
“Look, I know we don’t always get it right, to say that we do would be foolish,” Davey said. “But when we are getting it wrong I want to know about it so we can fix it.”
Davey will play a major role in choosing his successor at the MBTA, and said he planned to look both within and outside the agency for a new general manager.