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Ramirez Replaced As GM After 15 Months Leading MBTA

01-09_Ramirez_FILE-2017-09-12.jpg
MBTA GM Luis Ramirez talked to reporters Sept. 12, 2017 about his first day on the job.
Sam Doran/SHNS/File 2017

With his second term about to begin, Gov. Charlie Baker has made a move to install new leadership at the MBTA, severing ties to General Manager Luis Ramirez just a year after he was hired and bringing in Steve Poftak, a member of the T's control board, to run the transit agency.

The switch comes as the T has struggled to make substantial progress in its performance for riders. For instance, on the morning the shakeup was announced commuters on the Red Line had to deal with major rush-hour delays due to a signal problem in Cambridge.

Baker has urged patience as he highlights the long-term investments his administration has made in new track and signal system infrastructure, signs that display wait times throughout the system and the impending arrival of new Orange and Red Line cars that will boost capacity.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, however, said it was also time for a change at the top.

Poftak will start as MBTA general manager on Jan. 1 after Pollack said she reached a "mutual agreement" with Ramirez for him to step aside. Ramirez's departure comes just 15 months after he was chosen from a national pool of applicants to run the MBTA, and signed a three-year contract paying him $320,000 a year last year.

"Luis and I mutually agreed that the time was right for him to separate from the T," Pollack said.

Ramirez's departure takes effect immediately, and Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville will run the agency until Poftak can start the job next month.

Poftak has been the executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School since 2012, and he has been the vice chair of the MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board since 2015.

He has also sat on the MassDOT board of directors and briefly managed the MBTA during that nationwide search for a general manager that landed on Ramirez. His salary will be the same as Ramirez's to start at $320,000, with 1.5 percent annual raises and potential bonuses built in to the three-year contract.

"He knows the organization, he knows the people and he knows the challenges the T faces and he's going to hit the ground running," Pollack said, describing Poftak as a "lifelong T rider."

Ramirez's departure did not come as great surprise to some who have watched the T closely and said his lack of experience in public transportation showed over the past year.

"Sometimes the outside national searches don't really serve an agency's purpose," said Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and co-chair of the Transportation Committee. "I think one of the things the team needs, and in some degree Poftak matches that, is from day one you need to have someone who is intimately familiar with the challenges, and at the T there's no shortage of challenges."

Straus said he believed Ramirez "tried," but lacked the experience in transportation needed at this time in the MBTA's history.

"Obviously it's a well-paid position so they attracted candidates from around the country but in some respects it's getting to be like the filling the president's chief of staff position. It just takes a lot," Straus said.

Pollack said the decision not to launch another search to replace Ramirez, and instead just appoint

Poftak, was hers.

"We didn't need a search. We didn't need to find a national leader. We needed to find someone who could build on the first three and half years of work, so that was my call," she said, referring to the work of the Baker administration and the control board since the disastrous winter of 2015.

Pollack, who also made clear that she intends to stay on as secretary at the start of Baker's second term, credited Ramirez with putting together the MBTA's first balanced budget and accomplishing "a ton of internal work."

"He's accomplished a lot, but as we've been discussing the needs of the T in 2019 and beyond we mutually agreed that it was best for him to move on," Pollack said.

Ramirez arrived in Boston from Texas where he has been a former General Electric executive and Dallas-based business consultant. Despite having no experience in the public transportation sector, he was hired as a turnaround artist who the administration considered capable of transforming the complex bureaucracy of the T.

His separation agreement includes three-months of severance pay, a $26,600 lump sum payment to assist in the transition through Dec. 31, $44,600 to resolve the issue of first-year bonuses that were never determined by Pollack and health insurance coverage through April 10.

Ramirez could not be reached for comment, but did thank Pollack and Baker on social media for the opportunity.

"Thank you to the Secretary and the Governor for the opportunity to serve the Commonwealth. Most of all, thank you to the employees for what we accomplished. My wife and I have made Boston our home. Looking forward to our future here," Ramirez tweeted.

Straus said Poftak "certainly fits the bill" of someone who understands the challenges facing the T, but the veteran lawmaker said simply changing leadership is unlikely to be enough to put the MBTA on solid footing and deliver the type of transit service that riders in Massachusetts expect.

"I think any T general manger needs more help from the Legislature and the governor and this is not surprisingly one of the big challenges next session," Straus said. "Fixing public transit in Massachusetts is of course about management, but it still also has to include adequate resources and my own feeling is the T still needs more resources so that capital backlogs and state-of-good repairs are on a shorter timeline than we're providing right now."

Straus said he didn't want to pre-judge where the new revenue should come from before lawmakers have an open debate. "If someone thinks managing alone is going to stop the kinds of equipment issues we've seen, they're mistaken," he said. "No idea is out of bounds and people should be talking about their least hated choice."

Poftak did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday afternoon.

Boston Carmen's Union President Jim O'Brien said the union hopes to work with Poftak to repair "low employee morale, dissatisfied passengers, and equipment that needs investment."

"Until the MBTA makes a real, concerted effort to fix what's broken, the system – and all those who rely on it - will continue to suffer," O'Brien said in a statement.

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