Some Massachusetts lawmakers are mulling taking away MBTA safety oversight from the state Department of Public Utilities.
At a hearing Thursday, legislators grilled DPU Chair Matthew Nelson and DPU Director of the Transportation Division Elizabeth Cellucci about recent federal findings that the agency is not providing adequate oversight of the transit system.
Each state has a designated agency to oversee rapid transit safety, conducting on-the-ground audits in consultation with the Federal Transit Administration. In Massachusetts, that agency is the DPU, which also oversees electric and gas utilities.
Co-chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, Senator Mike Barrett, said a separate transportation commission may be better suited to oversee T safety.
“I am very concerned that the safety division historically has been an afterthought at the agency,” he said. The primary focus of the DPU needs to be climate change policy, Barrett said, and the T safety crisis is a “fire drill situation” distracting from that effort.
The hearing comes just over a month after the Federal Transit Administration released its 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.
The report also said the DPU has not used its full authority to prevent safety failures at the MBTA and ordered the agency to complete a legal assessment of its independence from the T.
Nelson said the DPU’s transportation division is working to shift from responding to safety incidents to trying to proactively prevent them, but the division is understaffed.
In September, Nelson told the joint transportation committee that the DPU is working to double its staff of T auditors from six to twelve.
But on Thursday, Nelson said the agency is struggling to staff up.
“We’re actively interviewing for them, and it’s been hard,” he said.
Switching T safety oversight to another agency is unlikely to resolve problems with recruitment and retention, Cellucci said.
“It’s just taking it and moving it somewhere else, there are still going to be the same challenges no matter where you go,” she said.
Former DPU Chair Ann Berwick, who served during the Patrick administration, told lawmakers she does not think the DPU should be in charge of overseeing T safety. As DPU Chair, Berwick said she handled T oversight “inadequately.”
“I think transit safety will always be a stepchild at the DPU,” she said. “I think it is time to let go of that model.”