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Legislators question state oversight of MBTA after scathing federal report

SOMERVILLE, MA - 9/02/2022: ..... At the Assembly station, the MBTA is replacing wooden ties across the Dana Bridge ( in the background ). So far teams have replaced over 1000 ties. Replacing ties allow for a smoother, more reliable ride. At Assembly, tie replacement work across the Dana Bridge as well as the removal of old ballast (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: METRO David L. Ryan/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 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, who co-chair 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 MBTA, 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.’ It ‘has not utilized its existing regulatory and statutory enforcement authority.’ It is ‘slow to complete corrective actions.’ ”

“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 co-exist” under one agency.

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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 MBTA.”

‘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 increasing 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.”

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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.

“We look forward to working with labor, MBTA leaders, lawmakers and riders to deliver the MBTA riders deserve,” Baker said this week. “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.”


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