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July 28, 2023

Eng brings MBTA reinforcements in from New York

Photo | Courtesy of MassDOT An MBTA commuter rail train

Facing a long list of needed safety, service and reliability improvements, the MBTA mined additional leadership from the same place it found its current top official: New York.

MBTA General Manager Phil Eng on Thursday announced the hiring of four new officials who will be responsible for managing the quality of T stations, agency infrastructure, engineering, and capital planning, operations and safety.

And like Eng, each of the four new major hires previously worked at transportation agencies in New York where he previously plied his trade.

Dennis Varley, a veteran of the Long Island Rail Road, will become the T's first chief of stations. Sam Zhou, another New Yorker who most recently worked for that state's Department of Transportation, will take over as the MBTA's assistant general manager of engineering and capital. Doug Connett, the new chief of infrastructure, joins from a state safety and security consulting firm and also has experience at transit agencies in New York City and Washington, D.C. And Rod Brooks, the MBTA's new senior advisor for capital, operations and safety, also has sizable experience at LIRR.

"These new hires bring decades of public transportation experience and public service to us. They value public service, and in their past roles they have successfully tackled similar challenges to ours," Eng said at an MBTA Board of Directors meetings where he announced the staffing moves.

The batch of hires is the latest significant shake-up at the T since Gov. Maura Healey took office in January. She named Eng, a veteran transportation official who led LIRR for about four years and previously worked for the New York State DOT and the MTA, as the new general manager in March. In April, she replaced three members of the T's board of directors including its chair and appointed Patrick Lavin to the new position of MassDOT chief safety officer.

Eng said with the new high-ranking employees soon joining, the MBTA is "beginning to restructure our organization."

"After having the opportunity to observe day-to-day operations, seeing firsthand some of our infrastructure condition needs and pursuant work, speaking with riders, managers and frontline workers, it is apparent that we need reinforcements," he said.

Brooks, the new senior advisor for capital, operations and safety, started in that role this week focusing on safety initiatives, right of way access and some capital work including the South Coast Rail expansion project, Eng said.

He'll earn $120 per hour on a contract that runs through Dec. 31, 2023 with a one-year extension option, according to a T spokesperson.

Connett will start Aug. 14 and will earn $260,000 per year, Zhou will start on Aug. 21 and earn $265,000 per year, and Varley will start on Aug. 28 and earn $265,000 per year, officials said.

Eng had signaled an intention to add new managerial positions for weeks, especially a stations chief after a series of incidents involving falling debris shone a spotlight on poor conditions at some MBTA stops.

MBTA Board of Directors Chair Tom Glynn reacted to the news by pointing out how many former T officials later worked at transit and transportation agencies in New York.

"It may seem like four people from New York is a lot of people from New York. But historically, we've sent four people to New York from Boston, so this is just leveling the playing field. The first one we sent was Babe Ruth, and the second one was Bob Kiley, and the third one was David Gunn, and the fourth one was Rich Davey, and we got nothing back," Glynn replied after Eng's presentation. "You have finally leveled the playing field, and we're appreciative of that."

The MBTA has struggled in recent months to achieve hiring goals that are linked to ongoing service cuts, long headways and frequent disruptions.

Eng said the agency is attempting to hire "unlike ever before at the T in perhaps the most competitive times" and is "contending with other public-sector agencies and private-sector companies" for talented workers.

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