A new board of directors charged with overseeing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority met for the first time Wednesday.
The meeting comes four months after the previous MBTA oversight board disbanded and is a welcome milestone for transit advocates who have raised concerns about a series of recent safety incidents and a fast-approaching funding crisis facing the transit agency.
Betsy Taylor, chair of the MBTA’s new board and a member of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, opened the meeting by addressing both challenges.
“As a board we look forward to working together to help the T provide safe and reliable service, and to actively maintain the T’s assets — its vehicles, signals, garages, and many more — and to secure long term, sustainable funding for the T,” she said.
Governor Charlie Baker was slow to announce his five appointments after signing a bill into law that created the new board in July. Earlier this month he appointed Taylor; Thomas “Scott " Darling, an independent consultant; Travis McCready, an executive director at the global real estate and investment firm JLL; Mary Beth Mello, a transportation consultant; and Robert Butler, president of the Northeast Regional Council of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
Butler was chosen from a list of three people submitted by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, in accordance with the new law. Under the law, another appointee had to be a resident of a designated environmental justice population, a neighborhood that meets one of several criteria, like having an annual median household income is not more than 65 per cent of the statewide annual median household income. McCready, from Lexington, is that pick.
Baker’s five picks are joined by Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy, who was appointed by the MBTA Advisory Board, and Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler.
At Wednesday’s meeting, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak gave board members an update on weekday ridership, which ranges from around 45 percent of pre-COVID levels on the commuter rail up to around 70 percent on buses. Ridership peaks in the morning and afternoon are less pronounced than before the pandemic.
“Ridership is coming back,” Poftak said. “If you’ve been on the T recently, you’ve seen plenty of people. If you haven’t been on the T recently, this news may come as a surprise to you.”
Poftak said the “vast majority” of MBTA employees have complied with the agency’s vaccination mandate that took effect last week and the agency is working to evaluate requests for exemptions.
Since the previous board’s oversight ended, the board of directors for the state’s Department of Transportation has been overseeing the MBTA. But advocates say more robust oversight is needed as the T has been plagued by a series of safety incidents.
In early September, a man fell to his death through a dilapidated staircase near the JFK/UMass T stop. Later that month, an escalator malfunction at the T’s Back Bay stop sent nine people to the hospital. Just two days later, a Red Line train derailed at Broadway station, upending commutes for the rest of the day.
Those events came after a speeding Green Line train crashed into a slower-moving one on July 30, sending 27 people to the hospital.
Poftak told the board that investigations into recent safety incidents are ongoing and he would be sharing findings with board members as soon as possible.
Keeping the transit system funded is another top concern among advocates. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation recently reported that the MBTA’s operating and capital shortfalls coming in fiscal year 2024 will require $1.25 billion in new funding annually.
During Wednesday’s public comment section, transit advocates stressed the need for new funding sources for the T and called on the new board of directors to institute a reduced fare for low-income riders starting next summer, something the MBTA is currently studying.
Board members unanimously approved bylaws that designate power to Poftak to approve contracts worth less than $15 million and created three committees that will meet at least quarterly: the Committee on Audit and Finance, chaired by Taylor, the Committee on Safety, Health and the Environment, chaired by Darling, and the Committee on Planning, Workforce Development and Compensation, chaired by Koch.
The board approved $60 million in additional state funding for the T for the current fiscal year to be transferred from the Department of Transportation and three construction contracts. The T will pay Barletta Heavy Division $47,631,000 to upgrade the T’s commuter rail station at Winchester Center, which is currently closed, $44,421,176 to Judlau Contracting, Inc. to upgrade Worcester Union Station, and $22,204,806.12 to SPS New England, Inc. to replace the Dorchester Ave. bridge over the Red Line.
McCready said he’s interested in tracking closely whether contractors are meeting goals set by the MBTA regarding the percentage of work on a project performed by “Disadvantaged Business Enterprises,” defined as “firms owned by minority, women, and other disadvantaged individuals.” The MBTA’s goal for DBE involvement in federally-aided projects from Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2023 is 20%.
“It would be helpful for me and I think helpful for the board to understand how these firms are performing, not just how the MBTA is performing on an aggregate basis, but whether or not the firms we are engaging are meeting their commitments or not from prior awards,” he said. “While the commitments are great, execution is better.”