Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the sweeping federal safety inspection of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority currently underway is “a good thing” that will bring national expertise to T policies aimed at keeping passengers and employees safe.
In a radio interview Thursday, Baker said he welcomed the new Federal Transit Administration inspection of the T.
“What the FTA will bring, among other things, is a lot of information and a lot of knowledge about what the rest of the country does and how other systems manage their older lines and their older units,” Baker said. “I think in the grand scheme of things, a focus on core operations and that sort of thing, especially with an organization that’s actually seen a lot more than certainly anybody has at the T, is a good thing.”
He also touted the state’s investments in modernizing the transit system since he took office in 2015. But he acknowledged, “there’s more that needs to be done.”
“We’ve invested a lot,” he told WBUR’s Tiziana Dearing. “The moment is the opportunity the FTA will give the T to actually bring national knowledge into its safety protocols and its policies and its procedures. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Asked what he would have done differently during seven and a half years in office, Baker said, “we’ve been playing catch up since we took office on the T.”
“We pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the T,” he said. “We talk regularly to the General Manager, we talk regularly to the Secretary of Transportation, but the biggest thing we did was make resources available to them to invest in their capital infrastructure.”
Those investments have not been enough to keep up with the MBTA’s modernization needs, according to previous agency estimates. A September 2021 report from the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found the MBTA faces a $13 billion shortfall for core infrastructure improvements it plans to make over the next decade.
In other words, the watchdog group found that the MBTA estimated it will need to spend around $25 billion between 2021 and June 2031 to modernize and maintain its current transit system and expansion projects already underway but will only have around $12 billion to spend over those years.
The Federal Transit Administration told the T last month it is inspecting safety at the T amid a “pattern of safety incidents,” including the April 10 dragging death of Robinson Lalin, whose arm got caught in a Red Line car at Broadway Station. 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.
The FTA inspection, first reported by the Globe, is only the second time the FTA has intervened on the local level in this way. In 2015, the agency conducted a safety management inspection of D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that led to the federal takeover of safety oversight there for nearly three and a half years.
In the April 14 letter, Joe DeLorenzo, the FTA associate administrator for transit safety and oversight and chief safety officer, said the federal agency is “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” at the T and will take on an “increased safety oversight role” of the transit system.
State authorities at the MBTA, MBTA board of directors, MassDOT, and Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which oversees safety at the MBTA, did not announce the inspection to the public.
An FTA spokesperson has said that the inspection will include the T’s subway and trolley systems but not the bus or commuter rail.
Safety at the T became a focus of the Baker administration less than a month after the governor took office, when a devastating series of snowstorms paralyzed the transit system. The governor and the Legislature later formed the Fiscal and Management Control Board to oversee the T, effectively giving Baker a direct hand in guiding an agency long plagued by a lacking safety culture and underinvestment.
The FMCB focused, in part, on boosting capital spending and addressing a deep backlog of repairs. The T went from spending around $750 million on capital investments in fiscal year 2015 to nearly $2 billion last fiscal year. Still, safety issues persisted. In 2019, the FMCB assembled an outside group of experts to audit safety at the T after a series of derailments.
They found that the state 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.”
Now a recent series of safety incidents, including some that have killed or injured T passengers and employees, has caught the attention of the federal government.
In January, a commuter rail train struck a woman’s car, killing her, when the crossing gates and flashing lights meant to keep cars off the tracks in Wilmington did not activate in time. Keolis operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
In September, a Red Line train derailed and hit the platform at Broadway Station with 47 passengers on board. No injuries were reported.
The derailment came two days after an ascending escalator malfunctioned at the Back Bay Station and suddenly plummeted in reverse, causing a bloody pileup of people at the bottom. Nine people were sent to the hospital.
The driver of a Green Line train that crashed into the one in front of it in July, injuring 27, has pleaded not guilty to negligence charges. The Globe has reported that he had a history of speed infractions at the T. In response to the incident, the MBTA is accelerating the implementation of a technology meant to prevent collisions on the Green Line from 2024 to next year, 14 years after federal transportation investigators first recommended it.
If the FTA’s inspection of the MBTA follows the same route as its inspection of WMATA, safety oversight of the T could effectively be in the hands of the federal government under the next governor.
However the FTA’s inspection plays out, the four major candidates for governor all said they would make T safety a priority of their administrations.
FTA intervention is the result of “repeated failures of the Baker administration to course-correct,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat, describing it as “yet another wakeup call.” Republican Geoff Diehl, a former lawmaker, said he welcomes the extra federal oversight.
Republican Chris Doughty, a businessman, said he would “address the deferred maintenance issues at the T” on his first day as governor.
And Attorney General Maura Healey, the race’s front-runner, said T safety and reliability would be a “top focus” of her administration.
“Obviously, the report of the federal government coming in and investigating is very concerning,” she said at an unrelated event on Thursday. “It’s welcome, because clearly things have not gone right there and the recent incidents have been incredibly troubling.”
Samantha J. Gross and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.