The chair of the state department in charge of overseeing safety at the MBTA vowed to double its staff of T auditors Wednesday in response to questions from lawmakers about ongoing safety incidents on the transit system two weeks after federal inspectors excoriated the Department of Public Utilities for failing to provide proper subway oversight.
Chair Matthew Nelson said DPU’s transit oversight division is trying to hire six auditors in addition to the six it already has and focus on preventing safety incidents instead of simply responding to them.
“We’ve met our requirements, but given the circumstances, more needs to be done,” Nelson told lawmakers, who called the hearing in the wake of the Federal Transit Administration’s report.
Nelson testified along with the chair of the MBTA’s board of directors Betsy Taylor, MBTA bus driver Tony Hobbs, and MBTA mechanic and machinists union president Jeb Mastandrea before members of the Legislature’s joint transportation committee Wednesday. It was the second legislative hearing about transit safety at the beleaguered agency this year.
The Federal Transit Administration declined an invitation to attend Wednesday’s hearing, which comes just two weeks after the release of the FTA’s safety management inspection findings about the T.
The scathing 90-page report said the T’s focus in recent years on long-term projects came at the expense of day-to-day operations and safety and has left the agency with too few workers and weak safeguards. The conclusions are similar to findings from a group of outside experts in 2019 who conducted a safety audit of the MBTA after several derailments.
“If you took off the cover page and you didn’t know which was which . . . you really wouldn’t know which one came first,” Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and cochair of the committee said of the two reports. “They track so closely, the same issues, the same problems, the same focus.”
Straus questioned Taylor, the chair of the MBTA’s board of directors, about the board’s decision earlier this year to allow the MBTA to transfer $500 million from its operating budget to its capital budget for longer-term projects, a decision criticized by the FTA.
Taylor defended the decision, saying much of the money went to improvements related to safety, like speeding up the implementation of an anti-collision system on the Green Line, which is expected to be finished by the end of next year.
“The MBTA must make these projects a priority if we are to restore public confidence,” she said.
Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat and cochair of the committee, asked Nelson why the DPU never “rang the alarm” about grave safety violations at the MBTA during the past year of incidents causing injuries and deaths to workers and riders.
“MBTA is still the primary and first line of defense on all safety activities,” Nelson said.
Hobbs, who has worked at the MBTA for 23 years and is currently a driver of the route 23 bus, said she wishes front-line employees had a bigger say in decision making. The recent cuts to bus service, following similarly widespread cuts in December, amid a shortage of bus drivers have made her job more stressful, she said.
“Is it a good work environment? Absolutely not,” she said. “I would not take the job now.”
Meanwhile, at a meeting Wednesday of the MBTA Board of Directors subcommittee on planning, workforce development and compensation, the agency’s chief human resources officer announced plans to make it easier for the T to hire new bus drivers by allowing them to get their commercial drivers license while on the job.
A pilot program is scheduled to launch Oct. 17 that will standardize commercial driver’s license permitting as part of the training for new bus drivers, said Tom Waye, the T’s chief human resources officer.
Previously, the T required candidates to hold a commercial driver’s license to be considered for a job driving a bus. The training lasts about two weeks and would cost job candidates $4,500 if they had to pay for the course, according to the MBTA. The agency is also offering a $4,500 signing bonus for new bus drivers.
The commercial driver’s license requirement had made it difficult for the T to recruit candidates to work as bus drivers, said MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore at the subcommittee meeting.
“We’ll pay you for the permit. We’ll pay you to get the training,” he said. “We do view this as a major activity by the T to change the way we’re doing bus hiring.”
Another sign of the T’s challenges with bus drivers is compliance with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate among that part of the MBTA’s workforce, according to Ahmad Barnes, the agency’s senior director of labor relations.
Barnes said 1 percent of the MBTA’s active workforce, or 80 workers, haven’t been fully vaccinated and face an administrative process that could culminate in their firing. There are more bus drivers facing possible sanctions than any other category of workers at the MBTA, Barnes said.
“The potential impacts on the bus operator classification really stand out,” he said.
Nineteen bus drivers have received their first written warning, eight have been suspended for five days, and two have been terminated because they haven’t been vaccinated, he said. Five other workers have been let go for not getting their shots, said Barnes, though disciplinary proceedings have been paused for members of the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589. The union and MTBA are bargaining over the vaccine mandate, he said.
In other areas of hiring at the MBTA, Waye said the T has selected 12 candidates to address the agency’s shortage of heavy rail dispatchers. In June, the MBTA cut weekday service on the Orange, Blue, and Red lines after the FTA found the agency didn’t have enough dispatchers to operate the subway safely.
Five of those dispatchers have completed the 10-week training program, Waye said, and began working on Monday. All together, the T plans to hire 15 new dispatchers, he said.
The MBTA has funding for 5,641 jobs with safety functions for the current fiscal year, according to Waye, but 932 of those positions are vacant.
To make it easier for the T to hire new employees, Waye said the agency has digitized its system for managers to seek new positions or fill vacant ones. That reform and other improvements, he said, is expected to shorten the time it takes to hire a new worker by five to nine weeks, meaning the full process can be completed in 13 to 19 weeks.