Massachusetts political and business leaders reacted with deep concern to findings from federal safety inspectors that showed serious shortcomings at the MBTA.
Jim Rooney, the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and former T deputy general manager, said findings from federal transit officials released Wednesday are “discouraging,” and the dreaded MBTA commute — with trains and buses that may or may not arrive on time and may or may not be safe — is a top reason employees are hesitant to return to the office after years of remote work.
“It’s unreliable, there are concerns about safety that keep emerging,” he said. “The T has a critical role to play and it’s not playing it.”
During its ongoing safety management inspection of the MBTA, the Federal Transit Administration found dispatchers working 20-hour days, runaway trains injuring workers, many operators and supervisors with expired safety certifications, and no prompt plans to fix track sections that are in disrepair.
The FTA plans to release a final inspection report in August but said Wednesday the MBTA and Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which is in charge of ensuring that the MBTA complies with federal safety laws, will have to address serious shortcomings in the meantime.
The FTA is ordering the MBTA to immediately increase staffing at its operations control center, improve general safety operating procedures, and address delayed critical track maintenance and safety recertifications for employees whose credentials have lapsed. The DPU will have to ensure that the MBTA implements the changes.
The interim findings indicate a lack of progress toward improving safety at the MBTA since outside experts found the agency was not prioritizing safety in 2019 and issued dozens of recommendations.
Senator Edward J. Markey said in a statement he is “troubled” by the FTA’s initial findings and encourages the T to “swiftly and transparently act on their directives.”
Rooney said the Baker administration is not focused enough on results at the T.
“What the governor has done with respect to the T that I would argue with is that he’s focused on the inputs instead of the outputs,” Rooney said.
Governor Charlie Baker has touted his administration’s investments in the MBTA when asked about the seemingly endless series of safety incidents on the system injuring and inconveniencing riders and workers. That, Rooney said, is the wrong approach.
“In business, if you have a project or a division that is failing the way the T is, and you call the person running that project into your office and his answer was, ‘Yeah, but I spent a lot of money,’ that’s not the right answer,” Rooney said.
At an unrelated event Thursday, Baker told reporters he appreciates the FTA making the T aware of some of its findings early so that the agency can “review them and start to go through the work that’s associated with delivering on them.”
“I said from the beginning that having a federal agency that’s seen this movie, with respect to public transportation everywhere, come in and do an audit of the system here in Massachusetts was going to be a good thing. And I continue to believe that,” he said.
State House Speaker Ronald Mariano called the findings “alarming” and said safety and reliability at the MBTA have only worsened since the Legislature created the agency’s former oversight board. He said he’s hopeful FTA oversight will lead to improvements.
“It’s absolutely critical that improvements that are made to the T aren’t just patch work, but rather long-term solutions that will ensure the safety of workers and riders so that all residents of the Commonwealth can be confident in our public transportation system,” he said in a statement.
State Senator Diana DiZoglio, who is running for state auditor, said she would conduct a safety audit of the MBTA, calling the FTA’s findings “unacceptable.”
Chris Dempsey, a former Massachusetts assistant secretary of transportation and the other Democratic candidate for state auditor, called the FTA inspection “a serious wake-up call,” adding, “the status quo of recent leadership is not cutting it.” As auditor, Dempsey said he would make sure the FTA recommendations are followed.
In addition to desperately needed investments in maintaining and upgrading infrastructure highlighted by the FTA, Rooney wants to see improvements to hiring, recruitment, training, and career development to change the T’s culture.
“I would look at the investments that need to be made in the hard stuff, but I think that a renewed focus needs to be on the team, team T, how to provide inspirational leadership to that group of people to right the ship,” he said.
There’s also a role for the Legislature to play in holding the T accountable and figuring out a sustainable, long-term funding source for public transit, Rooney said, instead of “lurching from crisis to crisis.”
The candidates vying to be the next governor of Massachusetts need to show how they’ll improve safety at the T, Rooney said.
“It needs to be front and center,” he said. “It’s part of the solution to so many other public policy issues, it warrants that level of attention.”
In response to the FTA’s report on Wednesday, T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said via e-mail the T is “developing immediate and long-term mitigation measures to address these matters.” The agency expects to have all active transit rail employees certified by this week.