The Massachusetts Legislature must make sweeping reforms to the MBTA once a new governor takes over, Ray LaHood, a former US secretary of transportation, told state lawmakers Tuesday.
At the top of its list should be taking away safety oversight of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority from the state’s Department of Public Utilities, LaHood said, which federal inspectors recently found is not providing adequate oversight of the transit system.
“If you don’t do anything else, you need to do that,” he said. “The work needs to be transparent to the public. You have to have transparency.”
A former Republican congressman, LaHood served as the top transportation official in the country during the Obama administration. In 2019, the T’s oversight board brought in a panel of transit experts, including LaHood, to investigate safety at the MBTA after a series of derailments. Their report, which listed dozens of recommendations, offered a similar overall assessment as a report about T safety from the Federal Transit Administration earlier this year. That federal report found the T’s focus 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.
LaHood’s comments came during a hearing of the Legislature’s transportation committee aimed at exploring how to improve safety at the MBTA.
When a new governor takes the helm in January, they will take over responsibility for an MBTA that is confronting a long list of new federal safety mandates and a deep workforce shortage. The T cut subway service by more than 20 percent this summer after the FTA found dispatchers were working shifts as long as 20 hours and told the agency it needed to staff up; that move has significantly increased wait times for trains.
LaHood encouraged lawmakers to “recreate” the MBTA with reforms.
“The current system is not working,” he said. “The FTA said that, we said it, and the people riding the trains have said it over and over again.”
He urged the T to publish a comparison between the two reports and “specific measurable safety performance goals” the agency can track publicly, and have its chief safety officer certify that the agency’s budgets include enough resources to meet those goals. He urged lawmakers to create a safety management agency to independently oversee the T and take safety oversight away from the DPU, which also oversees electric and gas utilities.
“This is an opportune time for you all because you are going to have a new administration, and there will be opportunities to make whatever changes need to be made . . . to make the T the safest possible system in the country,” LaHood said.
Earlier this month, state lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy discussed taking T safety oversight away from the DPU while grilling agency Chair Matthew Nelson about recent federal findings that the department has not used its full authority to prevent safety failures at the MBTA.
Nelson told lawmakers 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.
Since January 2019, the MBTA has experienced a higher overall rate of reportable safety events and a higher rate of derailments than its peers, according to the FTA. In December 2019, LaHood and his fellow experts found an underresourced MBTA, where maintenance, engineering, and safety staff were being spread too thin.
According to LaHood, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak was making progress toward improving safety at the agency before the pandemic hit.
“COVID put an end to all of that,” he told lawmakers.
In April, the FTA’s nearly unprecedented federal inspection of the T began just after a Red Line passenger was dragged to death at Broadway Station after his arm got stuck in a train door. The tragedy followed a series of other incidents in which workers and passengers were injured, attracting the FTA’s attention.
“That was very alarming,” LaHood told reporters about the dragging death. “You can’t have that happen.”
The House chair of the committee, Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, agreed there’s “no question [the pandemic] played a role” in the T’s slow progress toward becoming a safer system.
Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat and cochair of the committee, said not all of the T’s troubles can be blamed on the pandemic. He pointed to the MBTA’s decision earlier this year to transfer $500 million from its operating budget to its budget for long-term projects, a choice criticized by the FTA.
“The COVID excuse doesn’t really line up too well there,” Crighton said. “We’ve been told time and time again that ‘We have all the money we need.’ Clearly that wasn’t true.”
Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.