February 26, 2016

Baker talks jobs, MBTA

Courtesy Photo

Speaking at a business breakfast Thursday morning, Gov. Charlie Baker waxed nostalgic about the effort to woo General Electric to Boston and informed the room that some of the MBTA's equipment dates back to the Taft administration.

"There are signals on the Green Line that were installed in 1910, and they are still working," Baker told those gathered for a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast. "Now that means they're over 100 years old. I'm 59. When it gets cold, I get a little cranky."

Business groups have been pressing state government to improve public transportation and Baker said the MBTA had been spending $40 million per year on power, tracks, switches and signals, and the administration would spend $200 million per year for the next five years on that infrastructure.

An MBTA spokesman told the News Service the old switches are located in the Green Line's central tunnel system.

"I get that people like the shiny balls, OK? But the million people who ride that system? They need us to focus on reliability and resilience," Baker told the room at the Intercontinental Hotel. He said, "People can talk about building it to here and there and everywhere. But if we don't get it right on the core system... it's going to be incredibly hard to grow the ridership."

State transportation officials are reviewing whether the over-budget Green Line Extension can be scaled down enough to be built without an additional funding commitment from the state. Due to receive $1 billion in federal funds, the project would bring trolley service through Somerville to Medford and fulfill clean air requirements.

Baker also recalled how people had warned him against attempting reforms of the MBTA, which suffered widespread failures amid historic snows last winter.

"There are a lot of very smart people who said to us, 'There's a reason why governors don't take the T on, because you raise the visibility of it, you own every single thing that happens there every single day, and just given the nature of the system overall that may not be something you want,'" said Baker, who said he replied, "There's no point in having this job if you're not willing to take stuff like that on."

Darryl Settles, an African American restaurateur and businessman, quizzed Baker about the lack of diversity within the hotel ballroom where executives and lobbyists had gathered to hear the governor speak.

Settles had been an appointee to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority board and told the News Service he resigned last year before Baker swept a new group of appointees into the quasi-public agency.

"Please note the lack of diversity in the room. This is the city's chamber of commerce. Where are the minority businesses? The answer is there are not many successful minority businesses in the Commonwealth of scale," Settles said.

Baker said the administration had reformed its procurement process to make it easier for businesses to become certified to work with the state, and he said "key boards and commissions" should be filled with a "diverse collection of folks."

"I agree we have a long way to go on this stuff," Baker said.

Retirements and a statutory limit on the age of judges will give the governor an opportunity to appoint a majority of the members of the Supreme Judicial Court in his first term, and Baker confirmed he would seek racial diversity and women in that process.

"This is in some ways one of the most important things that governors do," said Baker.

Recalling his efforts to encourage GE to move its headquarters to Boston, the governor told the audience about a visit to Tresca in Boston's North End last September where he waited with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, UMass President Marty Meehan and GE executives about 45 minutes for others to arrive.

Baker said they had stood on the sidewalk "just chatting with one another, and taking selfies with people who went by and engaging in borderline silly political discourse about one thing or another for about 45 minutes until the other members of GE showed up."

Several GE officials told the governor it was "surprising" that he, a Republican, got along with the city's Democrat mayor, Baker said.

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