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Massachusetts Governor names panel to tackle tangled transit network

BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker on Friday named a seven-member panel to develop a plan for turning around Boston's transit system, which has struggled to maintain service after this winter's record-setting series of snowfalls.

After weeks of repeated shutdowns of portions of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's rail, bus and ferry systems, Baker said the new panel would have until the end of March to develop a plan to improve the system's maintenance and operational plans.

"Public transportation is a critical piece of the region's economy and there are clearly challenges that we need to overcome before we can run the MBTA efficiently and reliably for the traveling public," said Baker, a Republican who has spent much of his first two months in office managing the response to multiple storms that dumped about 7 feet (2 meters) of snow across eastern Massachusetts.

MBTA management was widely criticized for its decision to repeatedly shut rail service in advance of major storms, leaving commuters with few travel options at a time when authorities were urging people not to drive.

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The authority's general manager, Beverly Scott, resigned in the wake of that criticism, planning to step down in April.

The system's trains, buses and ferries carry riders on some 1.3 million trips on a typical workday.

Commuters coping with weeks of disruptions said the move seemed little more than a first step.

Brendon Albertson, a 28-year-old English teacher, said the recent spate of delays had caused him to give up trying to commute by rail. He has taken to riding his bicycle despite the freezing weather.

"This has been a huge burden," said Albertson, who ditched the train after his normal 40-minute commute turned into a 90-minute ordeal. "You could walk faster than that."

The panel will be chaired by Paul Barrett, the former head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority; Katherine Lapp, the former head of the largest U.S. transit system, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority: and Mayor Joe Sullivan of Braintree, a town south of Boston that has been without rail service for more than a week because snow has covered the above-ground rails serving it.

Crews are still digging out the snow covering those rails.

"Right now we're literally just trying to get service back to where it was before," said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. "We think we're on track to get regular service on the rapid transit lines back."

(Reporting by Scott Malone, Additional reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Editing by Lisa Lambert)