The failings of the MBTA and its state regulator are a daily reality for transit riders in Greater Boston, and the system’s commuting woes and safety concerns were the subject of a scathing safety report released in August by the Federal Transit Administration.
And, on Friday, the state’s two senators, Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, took on the plight of MBTA riders and channeled their frustrations with a hearing in Boston where they questioned the leaders of the transit agency and its regulator in an aggressive style typically seen during congressional examinations of Wall Street titans and chief executives of technology companies.
“The T is failing,” Warren said during her opening remarks. “The list of management failures is a long one.”
She scheduled the hearing following the FTA report that ordered the MBTA and its state regulator, the Department of Public Utilities, to implement dozens of measures to increase staffing, improve training and maintenance, and strengthen safeguards. The FTA’s safety review was prompted by a series of incidents, including train derailments, injuries to T workers and riders, a collision on the Green Line, and the death of a Red Line passenger who was dragged by a train in April.
Warren leads the subcommittee on economic policy for the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
The hearing produced promises for modest improvements that T riders should expect to see soon. Markey extracted pledges from MBTA general manager Steve Poftak to publish the agency’s data about average trip times and to detail the work necessary to eliminate slow zones on the Orange Line that have persisted even after an unprecedented monthlong closure. The Orange Line to-do list will be provided next week, Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said after the hearing.
Markey pressed Poftak to do a better job communicating with the public, using the Orange Line shutdown as his chief example.
T officials had promised riders the line would run faster after the closure, but MBTA travel time data analyzed by TransitMatters, a public transportation advocacy group, found trips are now taking longer.
While the shutdown set out to eradicate all slow zones on the Orange Line, the MBTA has now acknowledged that it fell short of that goal. During the closures, the T identified areas of track that required additional attention, Poftak said. There are slowdowns in place while those repairs are being made, he said.
“You should have communicated that to the public at that time,” Markey said.
Poftak acknowledged that he “failed to properly communicate that,” but defended the decision to press ahead with the track work.
He agreed to publish the agency’s data about average trip times and a to-do list of work to eliminate slow zones on the Orange Line. But when Markey asked Poftak to name the date when the line will speed up, Poftak declined.
“If I put a date in place it doesn’t prioritize safety,” he said.
Much of the hearing, held at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in downtown Boston, examined safety concerns and the hills the MBTA still must climb to address them. Mayor Michelle Wu and TransitMatters executive director Jarred Johnson testified about how the T’s shortcomings have affected the city.
FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez was the first witness to testify. The FTA’s report faulted the MBTA for prioritizing capital building projects above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and safety and further found the system may be as many as 2,000 workers short of what it needs to manage its current level of activity.
Running daily operations and building capital projects require adequate staffing, Fernandez said. “When the staffing is short, and particularly those large numbers, that means that individuals who are there are then responsible for doing more overtime, and it results in fatigue, which translates into a safety concern.”
Still, Fernandez offered some comforting words for riders.
“I feel that the system is safe and that people should continue to ride it,” she said. “Yet tough decisions will have to be made now to create a better, safer future.”
The FTA report listed 53 actions the MBTA must take to address the agency’s concerns. Warren asked Poftak how many the T has completed so far.
He said he couldn’t provide the number.
“Is the whole list of 53 still out there?” Warren asked.
Poftak said no, but added, “I don’t know the answer off the top of my head.”
He said the MBTA was submitting its plans for addressing the FTA’s concerns on Friday, a day before the deadline.
“Many of these corrective action plans are not sort of binary, flip the switch,” Poftak said. “They are multiyear processes of addressing some of the issues, and we intend to take it very seriously and do a very thorough job of addressing it.”
The plans won’t be made public until the FTA has accepted them, Pesaturo said after the hearing.
Warren also asked Poftak when the T plans to complete all the work mandated by the FTA.
Some of the requirements will be fulfilled right away, said Poftak, but he couldn’t specify how many. Others will take longer. “Some of them will be multiple years,” he said.
Warren asked Poftak about the FTA’s finding that MBTA managers do not consistently make decisions about safety risks based on safety data analysis or documented facts.
“I nearly fell over when I read that,” Warren said. “That is the bureaucratic way to say that your safety decisions are just made up.”
Poftak, who has been the T’s general manager since 2019, said the MBTA last year initiated a monthly presentation of safety data, has doubled the size of its safety department since 2019, and enhanced its system for assessing risks.
Warren was incredulous.
“It’s nearly four years into your term and you’re just now deciding that you need to collect accurate data and need to have a way to use that data to lay out meaningful safety plans going forward?” Warren said.
Turning to Matthew Nelson, the DPU’s chairman, Warren asked about the FTA’s conclusion that the regulatory agency is not doing its job and isn’t capable of doing it either.
Nelson insisted the agency is providing oversight of the MBTA and took steps to improve its operations following an FTA review conducted in 2019.
“Obviously, you have not taken enough action,” Warren said.
“I’m not arguing that we have. We need to do more,” he said.
Warren continued. “The FTA cannot come in and find the kind of mistakes it finds if you had been taking action. And I just want to underscore, if you can’t identify what’s wrong from the past five years, then how can anyone in Massachusetts have confidence that you’re actually going to fix this going forward?” she said.
Warren then inquired about the backgrounds of Nelson and his two fellow commissioners.
“None of you — none — has any experience in transportation or transit safety and oversight. Is that right?” she asked.
“In specifically transportation safety? That’s not our background,” Nelson said.
Taylor Dolven and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.