State lawmakers on Monday questioned the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s ability to keep its riders and workers safe, focusing particular criticism on transit officials’ lack of transparency about the safety-related issues that have plagued the subway system.
The joint transportation committee grilled MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler for three hours during the first of of three oversight hearings, with some legislators suggesting that the agency had been guided more by politics than its responsibilities to its riders.
“What good does it do to keep the public in the dark?” asked Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat and cochair of the committee. “Who is calling the shots at the T? Is it the general manager, is it the secretary, or is it the governor?”
At issue was the agency’s recent decision to withhold information from the public about a series of construction vehicle derailments on the Blue Line in May that contributed to the T keeping the subway shut down for more than a week longer than planned.
The Globe reported earlier that the T and its state oversight agency, the Department of Public Utilities, initially planned to tell the public about the three derailments, but decided against it after sharing draft statements with the governor’s office. The MBTA acknowledged just one derailment in its statements about the project’s delays, and Poftak eventually addressed the three derailments days later when facing questions from reporters at an unrelated in-person event.
Asked by Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, whether he thinks the communications strategy rises to the level of “political interference,” Poftak said he would not characterize the back and forth with the governor’s office that way. He and Tesler said their focus at the time was on making sure the construction work was completed safely.
“The communications aspect of it did not get my full attention,” Poftak said, adding if that had been his primary focus, he would have worked harder to ensure transparency. “We will continue to coordinate with the administration.”
The hearing comes amid the Federal Transit Administration’s nearly unprecedented safety inspection of the T’s subway operations, and two and half years after an outside group of transit safety experts found the T was not prioritizing safety.
Last month, the FTA found four glaring safety errors it ordered the T to address immediately while federal inspectors prepare their final report.
The transportation committee has received many but not all of the safety-related documents from MassDOT and the MBTA that it requested earlier this month, said Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and cochair of the committee. The committee is expected to hold at least two more oversight hearings about T safety in the coming months.
Straus said FTA Chief Safety Officer Joe DeLorenzo declined an invitation to attend Monday’s hearing. The committee intends to invite DeLorenzo again after the FTA’s final report is finished, Straus said.
Straus opened the hearing by questioning whether the MBTA is capable of overseeing capital projects and maintaining its day-to-day operations, something a 2019 report about T safety prepared by three outside experts found was a challenge for the agency. Straus brought up the state’s decision to get rid of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in 2009 and make it part of MassDOT instead.
“It may be that we’re at a similar point with the MBTA,” Straus said. “Is the T really qualified to be running a capital operation? Or should MassDOT be handling the capital work?”
Several legislators said they are hearing from constituents who are frustrated with the T and fearful of taking the transit system.
Senator John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat and vice chair of the committee, cited the 2019 outside safety review panel report that found a “culture of blame and retaliation” in which workers did not feel comfortable raising safety concerns to management.
To improve the MBTA’s safety culture since he become general manager that year, Poftak said the T created a safety hotline, which has seen a steady increase in reports from employees, held town halls, and created a newsletter.
“I assure you we are not done,” Poftak said.
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers continued to press Poftak and Tesler on the MBTA’s lack of transparency surrounding the Blue Line derailments.
“If you’re a T rider you have to wonder, how often are these issues not reported fully to the public?” Crighton said.
The derailments and the MBTA’s initial decision to keep information about them from the public happened as the T was under intense scrutiny from the FTA. The federal agency had launched its safety management inspection following a long string of serious safety incidents. The MBTA did not tell the public about the FTA’s inspection, which began in mid-April, until the Globe wrote about it on May 9.
“It is their matter, their investigation. Our tendency is to defer to them,” Tesler said.
In June, two Green Line trains crashed at Government Center Station, sending four operators to the hospital.
In January, a commuter rail train struck a woman’s car in Wilmington, killing her, when the crossing gates and flashing lights meant to keep cars off the tracks did not activate in time. Keolis operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
In September, 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 FTA launched its review of the MBTA subway system in mid-April after the dragging death of Red Line passenger Robinson Lalin at Broadway Station in Boston. This is only the second time in the federal agency’s history it has intervened on the local level in this way. The FTA is also probing whether the T’s state safety oversight agency, the Department of Public Utilities, is providing effective monitoring.
T riders already frustrated by the litany of recent safety incidents are now facing more inconvenience in their commutes. Last month the FTA said it found dispatchers working 20-hour days, staff with lapsed safety certifications, runaway trains injuring workers, and no prompt plans to fix track sections that are in disrepair. In response, the MBTA began running fewer trains on three subway lines — effectively using a weekend schedule on weekdays — because it doesn’t have enough dispatchers to safely staff its operations center.
Poftak said he estimates it will cost the T $300 million to address the four interim findings.
“I understand the frustration of our riders,” said Poftak. “We acknowledge that safety incidents have occurred and that our service levels are not where we want them to be.”
Tesler said, “Catching up on decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance will take time.”
“It cannot and will not happen overnight or even in just a few years.”
So far the T has hired five of the new 15 dispatchers it says it needs, with a sixth starting soon, according to a recent report to its oversight board. Transit advocates are urging the T to take action to immediately restore service by bringing back retired dispatchers or borrowing state employees with related expertise from other agencies. They also believe the T should provide riders relief by offering discounted fares and fare-free days.
The MBTA said it is making progress toward addressing the safety problems found by the FTA, including repairing a stretch of track and recertifying all staff.