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‘Disturbed and disappointed’ lawmakers want answers after federal officials slam state agency over T oversight failures

A Red Line train waits to depart Alewife station this week.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Days after the Federal Transit Administration criticized the state Department of Public Utilities for failing to provide proper oversight of the MBTA, lawmakers said Friday that they plan to hold a hearing in October to determine whether the agency should continue its role as the MBTA’s safety regulator.

“Is the DPU motivated enough to fill the safety role for the T?” state Senator Michael J. Barrett and state Representative Jeffrey N. Roy, cochairs of the Joint Legislative Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, asked in a letter sent Friday to DPU Chairman Matthew H. Nelson. “The authors of the federal report imply that it isn’t.”

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The lawmakers referred to a scathing report the FTA issued Wednesday about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, finding that the long-troubled transit system is understaffed, performs too little maintenance, and has weak safeguards. The federal regulators also took the DPU to task for lax supervision.

“DPU has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at MBTA,” the report said. It “has not demonstrated an ability to address safety issues and concerns identified” by the FTA.

In their letter to Nelson, Barrett and Roy said the FTA found that “DPU ‘has not been actively engaged.’”

“The report identifies significant problems of overwork and understaffing at the MBTA,” they wrote. “We want to know whether the safety function at the DPU is suffering from organizational fatigue of its own.”

DPU officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

“The DPU has been in the transportation safety business since before the Civil War,” Barrett said. “But its gas and electricity responsibilities have grown enormously since then. You need to ask whether transportation, safety, and energy and climate issues should continue to coexist” under one agency.

The lawmakers noted that the FTA report is “pointed” in its assessment of DPU’s performance in overseeing the MBTA and calls on the agency to ensure “its organizational and legal independence” from the transit system.

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“It calls out a specific problem: the ‘shared agency reporting relationships to the Governor,’ and the Governor’s leverage over the leadership of both organizations. We don’t worry about explicit interference. We worry instead about a ‘don’t make matters worse’ mentality.”

Perhaps “the safety operation, wherever it’s situated, should not be on the same team the T is on,” the lawmakers wrote. “We would like to hear about this issue from you and from T officials.”

In a statement earlier this week in response to the FTA report, DPU spokesperson Troy Wall said the agency will add more staff, including a new position of director of rail transit safety, and increase safety audits.

But the lawmakers said the DPU may be overwhelmed by the scope of its responsibilities.

“We wonder whether the state agency that must tackle the increasingly urgent questions of natural gas and electric power in a time of climate crisis should also handle inspections of household moving companies and towing companies,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “The damage from stretching the DPU too thin could cut in both directions. Either the safety mission could suffer due to the ever-growing concern about climate problems, or the climate mission could suffer due to the fire-drill nature of safety problems.”

In response to the FTA report, Governor Charlie Baker said he will ask the Legislature for $200 million to help the MBTA address the findings and $10 million for a training academy to help with hiring.

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“The DPU has also taken a number of steps to address the FTA’s findings, and our administration will ensure they have all the resources necessary to strengthen their oversight of the MBTA,” Baker said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, MBTA officials announced plans in the coming years to add a fleet of Green Line “supercars” that are 40 feet longer than the line’s current trolleys. The agency’s board of directors this week awarded a contract of more than $810 million to CAF USA Inc., to deliver more than 100 supercar trolleys for the Green Line, MBTA officials said.

“This is an incredible moment that marks an inflection point for the MBTA’s Green Line riders as we continue to work to transform the entire line,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a statement. “Not only will the Type 10 supercars provide more capacity and a roomier ride for what is the nation’s busiest light rail line, but they also include the latest safety technology, updated accessibility improvements, and other upgrades that improve the rider experience.”

The design phase will begin this fall and the MBTA plans to receive the first cars in spring 2026, he said.

At a news briefing, Poftak said the supercars represent the start of “an entirely new phase” for the Green Line.

“These new cars represent really a step change in terms of technology,” Poftak said. “They’re the newest types of cars. They have a significant upgrade in accessibility. We’ll be using this contract to replace all of the existing Type 7 and 8 cars, some of which date back to 1986 and 1987.”

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Poftak also updated reporters on the status of the Orange Line, which was shut down last month so crews could make long-overdue repairs. Recently completed projects included crossover improvements at Ruggles station, rail welding at Forest Hills station, canopy work at Sullivan Square station, and security enhancements at North Station, he said. The MBTA is installing and testing new signals at the Oak Grove and Malden Center stops, among many other projects.

All told, about half of the planned construction work has been completed, he said.

“I think we’ll reopen [Orange Line] service on Sept. 19 as we projected,” Poftak said.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.