Thursday, August 20, 2015

Great Scott!

Boston (and many parts of the country) are experiencing a heat wave. It’s August so it’s not all that surprising. It’s top of the news here because the weather service has determined that three consecutive days of 90-degree plus weather meet the criteria. Fortunately the Weather Channel has yet to name it, but it's still happening. Winter seems so far off. It was a few weeks ago (in July) that the snow pile from the record breaking winter fully melted. We’re another six weeks away from leaves falling and the nip returning to the air. But on July 30th President Obama did something that chilled Bostonians and should scare all Americans: he nominated Beverly Scott to the National Transportation Board.

Beverly Scott used to run the MBTA. She ran it into the ground. Yes, Boston had a terrible winter. A records setting winter in fact. Equipment failed, and it would have failed under any leader. The equipment is decades old. The failure of the primary transportation infrastructure costs millions in lost business, months of frustration and probably more than anything else killed the Olympic bid for the 2024 Games. 

At the time Beverly Scott took to the airwaves in a live Press Conference that has been described as “passionate,” “babbling,” “barnburner” and “bizarre.” Memorable phrases such as “Lord Jesus” as an answer to a rhetorical question stuck with many people as well as her self description: “this wasn’t this woman’s first rodeo.”


At the time there was considerable criticism of Scott and the MBTA. Many of my progressive friends took to social media to reinforce Scott’s narrative: the equipment at the T is ancient, it’s a record amount of snowfall and nobody could do better. There was also the insinuation and actual accusations that the negative comments about Beverly Scott were because she is an African American woman – so both a race and gender bias had to be part of the equation. 

My blog at the time looked at the issue differently. I went through many MBTA budgets and showed how the service actually had increased revenue and increased services in a disproportionate way to population and usage. I researched and found that the MBTA had expanded services and capital programs at the expense of day to day operations. In fact, the service didn't even had a list of what equipment needed to be maintained or repaired. So the Federal Government granted $1 million to them to hire staff and put the information into a computer system. 4 years later the money was spent but the work wasn't done. It was true, but not very sexy.

Governor Baker’s panel came out with a report in April 2015 which validated the thesis: the T doesn’t have a budget problem on the revenue side, it has it on the spending side. Practices such as paying regular staff positions through capital funds was cited as an irregularity. The panel also found the T had been expanding too quickly and not using its considerable resources to maintain their equipment. Management was cited as the cause.

The independent panel of transportation experts determined that most of the problems during the storms were not related to equipment failures but rather a failure to have personnel to maintain, repair and operate them. It wasn’t due to a lack of staffing (which increased dramatically during Ms. Scott’s tenure). During the worst of the snow there was an absentee level of nearly 53% while other snowstorms have had a 19% rate. That far exceeds the 4 to 5% cited in the report as industry standard.


Ms. Scott came to Boston with a tarnished record. Shortly after being appointed to the position in Boston – but before she actually started – it was discovered that she was leaving a track record of problems in Atlanta. The Boston Globe reported in November 2012 that the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to get Scott to do the job she was hired to do. Governor Deval Patrick dismissed the report and pushed through the nomination.

Scott started at the MBTA and reports show she spent nearly one week a month out of state at conferences, running up tabs in the six-figures. There’s nothing wrong with professional networking and training – but she clearly didn’t apply any of the basics to snow management to the system she was running that were covered at those conferences. (Newspapers have gone back and looked at the agendas of those conferences and found that those subjects were covered.)



Scott resigned shortly after her public relations fiasco – and stuck the taxpayers with a $50,000 tab for a consultants report she ordered one week after the Governor established his independent panel to do its review. (The Scott consultant report was largely copies of web pages with statistics from weather.com.)

The issues around Beverly Scott are that she’s incompetent. She was when she was hired based on the failures in Atlanta and she demonstrated it during her tenure in Boston. That’s true whether she’s an African American or not, and whether she’s a woman or a man. Sorry to say to my progressive friends: a bad job is a bad job.

The expression “Great Scott” is now dated. Wikipedia says: “it is an interjection of surprise, amazement, or dismay.” It’s not an adjective describing a highly competent leader. It’s the nicest phrase I could think of when I saw President Obama was rewarding failure with a highly coveted position on the National Transportation Safety Board. The National Transportation Safety Board is the governing agency that looks into mistakes and accidents in transportation. Given that Beverly Scott has overseen so many herself, perhaps she is actually the right candidate?

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