MBTA General Manager Phil Eng finishes first year on the job. So how’s he doing?

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BOSTON – MBTA General Manager Phil Eng was all smiles as he greeted workers and riders on his first day at work on April 9, 2023.

And he was accentuating the positive during an anniversary Zoom with the MBTA Advisory Board, a watchdog group of officials from the cities and towns served by the T. 

“We’re leading the country in terms of return to commuter rail” since the pandemic, Eng noted.

But while commuter rail is a bright spot, overall T ridership was less than two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels as of last fall.

At the Advisory Board meeting, Eng fielded complaints about issues like poor communication about route changes. “Anytime you alter a bus route, while it may improve the route for everybody, it has local impact and individual impact,” he said. “There needs to be a robust communication.”

And the mild-mannered GM flashed his tougher side on the topic of service diversions to accommodate work on the T’s infrastructure. “You want this weekend for a diversion? You’d better be ready, whether you’re an outside party or our own maintenance crews, and in this way, again, we will see projects start to be delivered more on time, on budget,” he said. 

Eng gets high marks from most close observers for improving the T’s management and culture. But even as legislative leaders signal major new funding for the system to pay for upgrades, employee training and fixes for its infamous safety issues, there’s an elephant in the room that poses Eng’s and the T’s biggest challenge of all: filling a projected $650 million budget deficit next year, with more red ink expected to follow.

“Fiscal ’25 looks balanced is the good news, so we have a little bit of time before the fiscal ’26 massive deficits come into play,” said Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane.

The “Millionaire’s Tax” voters approved in 2022 was supposed to help fund our transportation needs, but it isn’t going to yield nearly enough. In other states, they fund public transit, in part, with fees on ride shares and car sales and rentals, road usage fees and a piece of the parking ticket pie, so Beacon Hill has lots of options to look at.

Whether they have the political will to squeeze more out of the public is another question entirely. 

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