Federal Transit Administration staff will be on the ground in Boston as soon as next week to begin inspecting safety at the beleaguered Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, only the second time in the federal agency’s history it has intervened on the local level in this way.
The new “safety management inspection” announced by the FTA in an April 14 letter to MBTA general manager Steve Poftak will include interviews with T staff and reviews of equipment and protocols, experts said, following a series of safety incidents on the T system resulting in passenger injuries and deaths.
And while the federal action will start as an inspection, it could presage an even more robust form of oversight.
The FTA has made only one such inspection since Congress expanded the agency’s power to oversee transit safety in 2012: in 2015, the FTA completed a safety management inspection of D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority after dozens of subway passengers were sickened and one died when smoke filled a train stuck in a tunnel. Ten teams composed of more than 35 safety and transit operations experts combed through the agency.
The inspection found safety lapses and prompted the FTA to take over direct oversight of WMATA for nearly 3½ years.
The FTA’s inspection of the T, first reported by the Globe late Monday, means the federal agency will “immediately assume an increased safety oversight role of the MBTA system,” according to the letter.
“This is unprecedented, unheard of,” said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, a group made up of representatives of municipalities served by the transit system. “It speaks to the gravity of the situation. This is receivership in all but name. Maybe that’s what the T needs.”
The FTA inspection will include the T’s subway and trolley systems, but not the bus or commuter rail, according to an FTA spokesperson. The FTA sent its letter announcing the inspection to the MBTA, the Massachusetts Transportation Department, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, and the MBTA board of directors on April 14, but authorities kept the news from the public. MBTA staff and board members did not mention the inspection during their April 28 board meeting.
“We weren’t really thinking about it from a public relations strategy,” Poftak said Tuesday when asked why the agency did not disclose the development. “We had already begun internally to address the findings in the letter. This board talks about safety more than any other board and it would have been presented in the normal course of business.”
In its letter, the FTA said it “remains unclear what actions the MBTA Board and executive team are implementing to prevent and address the system’s safety violations,” citing a “pattern” of recent incidents, including the death on the Red Line last month of Robinson Lalin, who got caught in a subway door at Broadway Station and was dragged about 100 feet and killed. MBTA board members on the safety subcommittee did not ask any questions about Lalin’s death at their April 14 meeting, just four days later.
Transit advocates have been raising concerns about the new MBTA board of directors’ hands-off approach for months, citing their lack of questions during meetings and failure to implement initiatives started by the previous board, which dissolved last summer.
The new federal inspection comes as the MBTA faces a criminal investigation by the Suffolk district attorney’s office related to the July Green Line train collision that sent 27 people to the hospital and a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into Lalin’s death.
Last week, the NTSB reported that “a fault” in a door control system on the Red Line train contributed to the fatality. The MBTA is still waiting for delivery of hundreds of new Red Line cars from a Chinese company first contracted in 2014 to replace the more-than-50-year-old cars like the one involved in Lalin’s death.
On Tuesday, Poftak said, “The MBTA is safe,” adding that he and his family use the transit system.
“We’ve made extensive investments in safety,” he said. “We have extensive safety protocols in place.”
As part of its inspection, the FTA will assess the effectiveness of the Department of Public Utilities in overseeing safety at the MBTA, according to the letter and an FTA spokesperson. The DPU is charged with ensuring that the MBTA is in compliance with federal safety laws.
Danielle Burney, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the DPU Transportation Oversight Division currently employs 10 people and contracts with technical consultants. DPU is part of the EEA.
Each year the DPU reviews the MBTA’s safety plan using a checklist from the FTA, Burney said via e-mail, and every three years the DPU audits the plan and provides corrective actions. DPU staff do not inspect MBTA cars or tracks, but they can attend an inspection to verify that the MBTA is conducting inspections on schedule, Burney said.
This is not the first time an outside group has investigated safety at the T.
In 2019, the MBTA’s former oversight board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, assembled an outside group of experts to audit the T after a series of derailments. They found that the agency lacked a culture of safety and provided 61 safety recommendations in six categories: financial review, safety assurance, safety culture, safety policy, safety promotion, and safety risk management.
As of February, two-thirds of the recommendations had been completed, including most of the safety culture and safety risk management recommendations, MBTA staff reported to the board, and one-third were in progress or on hold, including all of the financial review recommendations.
The panel found that the T was prioritizing delivery of its capital investments and paying “insufficient attention” to “day-to-day preventative maintenance and inspections and maintaining the full functionality of legacy assets.”
One of the experts hired to do the analysis, Carmen Bianco, former head of New York City Transit, said the MBTA should redouble its efforts to complete the panel’s recommendations.
“Safety must be their top priority,” he said. “If they’re continuing to have these problems, if the FTA is in there, I suspect they’re going to find very similar things to what we found.”
Advocates want to see the state Legislature and governor take a more hands-on role in overseeing and supporting the MBTA.
Former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi said the T’s safety woes may be linked to its funding troubles.
“The pattern could be the result of a perfect storm of an aging system that has never been able to play catch-up with maintenance issues and continues to struggle,” he said.
“If we think the solution only happens at 10 Park Plaza, we won’t solve a thing,” he said referencing T headquarters. “It would be lucky if it was that easy.”
Senator Brendan Crighton, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s joint transportation committee, said his panel does not have any hearings or specific actions planned related to T safety.
“At this point we’re going to closely monitor the federal agencies and the T itself,” he said. “As far as oversight, it’s a bit out of our purview at this point.”
Massachusetts Senate leaders on Tuesday released a $50 billion budget plan that includes what they called an additional $60 million for the MBTA, which would receive $187 million on top of revenue it collects from a portion of the state’s sales tax. The funds would go to support “necessary improvements for rider safety,” according to Senate leaders.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.