If only Governor Charlie Baker had the same level of interest in fixing the MBTA as he does in managing the messaging about its woes. Unfortunately, with the end of his term in office coming into view, it’s pretty clear he does not.
As reported by the Globe’s Taylor Dolven on Thursday, top Baker administration officials were intimately involved in keeping details from the public about three derailments of a construction vehicle on the Blue Line in May. Were it not for the reporters who started asking questions, the public might never have known.
Yet while some serious message meddling is going on with his aides, Baker walks away from taking responsibility for serious safety issues highlighted by a recent Federal Transit Administration audit, in glaring contrast to the way he responded to the T’s troubles in the winter of 2015.
Massachusetts lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on July 18 to investigate safety problems that include derailments, collisions, and assorted equipment malfunctions that led to injuries and one horrific death by dragging. According to state Representative William M. Straus of Mattapoisett, who co-chairs the joint committee on transportation, lawmakers will focus on the recommendations made in a 2019 safety report done for Baker by former US transportation secretary Ray LaHood, and try to determine “what steps were taken and if they were not, why not?”
Added Straus: “When you go through that report, the disturbing thing is in today’s context of events, so many of the same kinds of problems were identified then. It’s more than a disappointing reality that we seem to have to start over in terms of the T’s response.” The committee expects to hear from Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, as well as from the T engineering staff and some union representatives, he said.
Legislative oversight, while welcome, is also long overdue — just another symbol of the T’s historic orphan status in Massachusetts politics. No one wants to own the challenges that go along with running America’s oldest subway system. Yet safe, reliable, and well-functioning public transit is key to greater Boston’s economic health. The first step to getting there requires honest answers to some important questions. Among them:
1. Who’s really running the show at the T? The politicians or the transit experts? It doesn’t seem to be Poftak, the GM. After three derailments of construction vehicles, Poftak and the state Department of Public Utilities drew up statements to provide the public with details about the incidents. The emails obtained by the Globe show that Poftak indicated he needed permission from Tesler and Baker chief of staff Tim Buckley to send out a statement with full details. Instead, the governor’s communications staff directed the T communications staff to send out a two-line response that did not provide the full information about the derailments. How often does this happen? This gets at leadership and culture issues that affect safety.
2. What’s the truth about the T’s fiscal state? The MBTA oversight board recently approved a $2.55 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. With help from federal pandemic relief dollars and money from its rainy-day fund, the T is said to be fending off a fiscal crisis, at least for the moment. But as the Globe reported, by next summer, the T will face a $236 million gap in its operating budget, which could grow to $406 million the following year. Meanwhile, T ridership is still well below pre-pandemic levels. Safety concerns can cut into ridership even more, which is one more reason to make sure they are addressed.
3. Has increased capital spending come without equal commitment to operational spending? The Baker administration can take credit for some $8 billion it has invested in new tracks, cars, and signals. While it’s good to make up for decades of deferred maintenance, it’s bad if it affects staffing levels and means old equipment is not being properly maintained and inspected. All the old Orange Line cars currently in use went into service between 1978 and 1979, making them more than 40 years old. Just the other day, one of those old cars was taken out of service because of a “mechanical issue.” There has to be enough money to keep up with a fleet that grows more antiquated every day and the Baker administration needs to be honest about what those fiscal needs are, in terms of future investment.
4. What’s the T doing about staffing deficiencies? The FTA audit called out the T for four safety issues, including inadequate staffing at the operations control center and late recertification of T workers. After service cuts were tied directly to staffing levels, US Representative Stephen Lynch is reportedly trying to work out a way to bring retired dispatchers back to the operations control center. Baker, meanwhile, has blamed the pandemic for hiring problems at the T. That certainly could be part of it. But perhaps people don’t want to work at the T because it doesn’t seem like a good place to work. The steady drip of bad news is not only bad for the morale of those already working there, it’s hardly an advertisement for new hires.
5. What’s holding up production of new Orange and Red line trains? These new trains are critical to the future safety and reliability of the MBTA. They are being produced by CRRC MA — a subsidiary of CRRC, a state-owned Chinese rail manufacturer — under a contract that was first awarded in 2014, and expanded in 2017. So far, the Springfield factory where they are assembled has delivered 74 of 152 Orange Line cars and 12 of 252 Red Line cars. But the new cars have been pulled out of service for brake issues, strange noises, a derailment, a door that stuck open, and most recently for a battery issue. Are the production delays due solely to COVID-19 shutdowns and supply chain issues, or is something else going on? What about the mechanical issues? Are they standard, to be expected, or are these new cars having problems relating to the T’s old infrastructure?
During this summer of T discontent, answers and accountability are needed from the Baker administration. Like it or not, Baker owns the T until he officially leaves office.
Clarification: While MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak indicated in an email obtained by the Globe that he needed permission from Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler and Baker chief of staff Tim Buckley to send out a statement about derailments on the Blue Line, the instruction to withhold some information about the incidents came from the governor’s communications staff.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.