The tragedy involving the dilapidated staircase near the MBTA JFK/UMass Station, where a Boston University professor fell to his death, is an opportunity for state leaders to rethink how they track state-owned properties and come up with a better system for tracking maintenance and repairs.
As the Globe’s Elizabeth Koh recently reported, several government agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, flagged safety issues on the staircase that led from Columbia Road toward JFK/UMass Station. The staircase was shut down and blocked off, but not repaired or removed, until after professor David Jones died.
At that point, it also became clear there was confusion over which state agency was responsible for repairing those stairs. Initially, a T official suggested the structure belonged to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. That was true up until 2009, when the Legislature reorganized the state’s network of transit agencies and shifted responsibility for major roads to the newly created Department of Transportation. However, as the Globe reported, the law did not explicitly transfer the staircase leading to the T’s station below to MassDOT. But after the tragedy, MassDOT officials ultimately said it was their responsibility.
“You’re seeing a systems failure here writ large. You’re seeing bureaucratic finger-pointing writ large. It’s a mess,” Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA’s Advisory Board, told the Globe. So, how many other so-called assets fall into a no-man’s-land, where confusion over oversight could lead to a similar mess? And what is the state doing to clarify ownership and oversight responsibilities?
A spokeswoman for MassDOT, the T’s parent agency, declined to comment, beyond what it has already said: “The MBTA has a process for regularly reviewing the condition of MBTA assets across the stations.”
Chris Dempsey, a Democrat, and transportation advocate, who is running for state auditor, said via email that he believes that the person elected to that office “can identify and elevate the fact that this inventory is at best incomplete and at worst nonexistent, and strongly recommend that these agencies invest more to track their assets.” He added, “we need to keep pushing for a culture of more transparency, openness, accountability, and responsibility from the bottom of the state to the top.”
Dempsey’s primary opponent, state Senator Diana DiZoglio, said via text message, the David Jones tragedy as well as other T issues “all point to the need for us to do much more, to audit money and performance and to share that with the public.”
But long before a new auditor takes over, MassDOT should — if it has not already done so — begin the process of tracking assets statewide to determine who owns exactly what road, bridge, walkway, or staircase. No one is saying that would be an easy task. But Dempsey said that breaking it down by region — say, the Berkshires — or by category — pedestrian bridges — is one way to break it into manageable bites.
With officials declining to talk about it, it’s a mystery as to how the state keeps such records. Some of the reluctance to explain may be tied to expectations about civil litigation. At the time of Jones’s death, his family said it was “preventable.” But it’s also part of the current culture of state government. Under Governor Charlie Baker, information doesn’t flow; at best, it trickles.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot to learn from the tragedy at the JFK/UMass T stop. The danger presented by the staircase was first recognized in 2019. It was shut and cordoned off in January 2020. Several service requests after that were closed for unclear reasons, according to the Globe report. Also unclear is whether any service requests were forwarded to MassDOT, the agency responsible for repairs.
In September 2021, Jones somehow got onto the staircase — no one knows exactly how — and fell to his death. The staircase was removed the following weekend, demonstrating just how quickly the state could have removed the structure if someone had taken responsibility for doing so sooner. It all points to the need to better understand who owns what, as well as the need for a better system for tracking repairs and maintenance. There’s nothing sexy about that part of government. Yet it can mean the difference between life and death.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.