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T oversight board light on oversight, transit advocates warn

In September, an ascending escalator at Back Bay Station careened backward at high speed, sending a pile of riders tumbling to the bottom, as seen in this still from an MBTA camera.MBTA

Four and a half months after an escalator at Back Bay station malfunctioned sending dozens of MBTA riders tumbling down in a bloody pileup, many key questions remain unanswered including what, exactly, caused the ascending escalator to suddenly reverse.

Enter the MBTA oversight board’s subcommittee on safety, which took up the issues of escalators at its monthly meeting on Thursday.

But the board members didn’t ask any questions about the horrific malfunction, nor did they ask what the T is doing to prevent a similar incident in the future.

Transit advocates see such quiescence as part of a troubling pattern: that the seven-person Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority board of directors is not taking a strong enough oversight role of the agency as the T grapples with a series of recent safety incidents and faces an impending financial crisis.

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“If the members aren’t asking hard questions, particularly around things like safety and finances, then what is their purpose?” asked Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group. “You have an opportunity to do so much, what are you doing with that role?”

In Thursday’s presentation to the Safety, Health and Environment Subcommittee, MBTA staff reviewed progress the agency has made toward implementing 61 safety recommendations made by an outside group of experts hired by the state to audit the T in 2019.

More than two years after the MBTA received the group’s findings that the agency lacked a culture of safety, two-thirds of the recommendations to improve safety have been completed, and one-third are in progress or on hold, the staff said.

Board member Scott Darling asked how the MBTA is measuring success on each of the recommendations. In response, the T’s deputy director of safety assurance and promotion, Michael Catsos, provided few specifics.

“Long after the initial recommendations are closed out, that safety assurance process is going to live on,” Catsos said. “That helps us keep our finger on the pulse, collect data, look at trends, revisit these things periodically.”

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None of the directors asked about the series of recent safety incidents at the MBTA, including the Green Line crash in July that sent 27 people to the hospital and the escalator malfunction at Back Bay.

The T’s deputy director of safety oversight and planning, Matthew DeDonato, reviewed recent escalator injuries throughout the MBTA system. Since 2019, there have been 117 incidents that injured 131 people, he said, and 110 of those i,ncidents injured just one person. Twelve of those incidents happened at Forest Hills station, 8 at North Station, and 7 each at Ashmont, Back Bay, and Maverick, he said.

DeDonato said the MBTA safety department is conducting an audit of its escalator contractor Kone’s compliance with the agency’s safety plan. The audit should be finished in the next five to six weeks, Catsos said.

The Sept. 26 malfunction was not the first time an ascending MBTA escalator suddenly stopped and accelerated downward. A Globe review of court documents and news archives found three nearly identical incidents since the mid-1990s, and a fourth alleged in a lawsuit.

Kone has been the MBTA’s escalator contractor since 1999. The company’s most recent five-year, $42 million contract with the T expires in June of this year. The MBTA claimed last month Kone is withholding information about the Sept. 26 malfunction at Back Bay, according to a copy of a memo obtained by the Globe through a public records request. When the Globe contacted Kone about the memo last month, the company declined to comment citing a lawsuit it’s facing about the Back Bay malfunction.

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Board chair Betsy Taylor said the board takes its charge very seriously.

“That’s why Directors have been spending much of their time learning everything they can about the myriad of challenges facing the Authority,” she said in a statement. “On top of meeting their fiduciary and statutory obligations, Board members receive many updates from multiple MBTA departments on matters of public interest. It is the important process of information-gathering that assists the Board’s ability to make informed and reasoned decisions that impact hundreds of thousands of daily T riders.”

Jarred Johnson, executive director of advocacy group Transit Matters, said the public is used to the deep level of transparency and engagement of the T’s previous oversight board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, that expired last year.

“There were a lot of advocates around the country jealous and impressed with the level of access and engagement and how deep the FMCB went,” he said. “It feels like the T has made incredible strides — but they are not at the point that you can have a board this hands off.”

The previous board articulated a clear vision for aspects of the T, advocates said, including a reduced fare for all low-income riders. The current board has yet to articulate its stance on a low-income fare or any other particular policy, advocates said.

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“The FMCB is an example of how a board can build trust with a community,” Thompson said. “They asked hard questions, they did more than review slides and give a thumbs up and that produced results.”

Former state secretary of transportation Jim Aloisi said the MBTA’s new board does not have the same directive as the FMCB, which was created in the aftermath of the T’s shut down during a series of blizzards in 2015. Still, he is concerned that the new board is not taking enough of a hands-on approach.

“A governing board is supposed to govern,” he said. “It should govern in a way that inspires the confidence of riders and advocates . . . We can only do that with engagement and transparency, and the jury is out on that.”


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven.