Federal transit inspectors this week rebuffed more than half the MBTA’s proposed plans to improve safety and efficiency on its subways, sending the agency back to the drawing board to address critical shortcomings that were identified in a scathing August report sparked by a series of accidents on the system.
It is the second time the Federal Transit Administration requested the T improve its proposals since filing initial plans in September, illustrating the challenges the long-troubled transit agency faces in getting the system to operate at full strength while meeting federal safety standards.
Specifically, the FTA rejected proposals designed to improve the MBTA’s hiring process and certification of new drivers; to implement a safety management plan, and improve risk assessment and monitoring; and to increase the independence of the T’s quality control department from the operations it oversees.
The new submissions are due Jan. 3.
Speaking at an MBTA board meeting Wednesday, Meredith Sandberg, the T’s deputy chief of quality, compliance, and oversight, said the FTA returned 12 of the 20 plans with mostly “minor feedback.” The agency also requested the T develop both an “integrated project plan” and “comprehensive project management plan.” However, she noted the FTA did accept the T’s plans to make communication about safety more efficient.
“The FTA decided to review all of [the remaining plans] together comprehensively, upon realizing how interconnected the topics” are in the so-called corrective action plans, Sandberg said.
Matthew Petersen, programs manager at the advocacy group TransitMatters, said he wasn’t surprised to see the rejections by the FTA, but noted the T has been cooperating with regulators and that “it’s clear that they are making progress.”
One concern Petersen voiced was that with the Baker administration leaving office in January, and MBTA general manager Steve Poftak also departing soon, the T has little incentive to move quickly.
“A lot of things need to change, and I’m not certain that we’re going to see that happen in the next few months,” Petersen said.
Meanwhile, James Aloisi, a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation, questioned if the FTA was largely quibbling with the T over wording and procedural issues rather than substantive operational or safety matters, and worried the oversight process would drag out even further.
“It could take years, and that would be disastrous,” he said.
He also noted the federal agency’s demands, such as hiring requirements, came without acknowledgment of the financial cost to the perennially cash-strapped agency.
“Part of my ongoing frustration with the FTA safety inspection review process is that it’s divorced from any sense of reality in terms of its cost implications and the need to deal with those,” Aloisi said. “It’s a glaring omission that the FTA itself doesn’t deal with.”
A spokesperson for the FTA would only say that timelines for implementation will be set individually for each action plan once approved.
The FTA’s August report found long-term projects were prioritized over safe daily operations and gave the T strict orders to improve safety, training, and hiring practices.
The findings came after a series of safety incidents, including collisions between trains and with cars at crossings, derailments, the death of a Red Line passenger whose arm became stuck in the doors of a moving train, and a fire on an Orange Line train that sent one passenger diving into the Mystic River below.
New incident data released by the T this week show improvements in some areas and warning flags in others. For example, the number of injuries on buses has been rising monthly, to 43 in October, up from a low of 19 in July. However, in October, the T recorded the fewest collisions and lowest rate of mechanical failures since July, although both figures still exceeded their targets, according to a data analysis MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ronald Ester shared at Wednesday’s meeting.
Ester said the T is still working to hire bus maintenance workers.
On the Orange and Red lines, customer injuries were within the T’s target range — fewer than two out of every 1 million trips resulted in passenger injury. On the Blue Line, that figure was 1.69 injuries per million trips — higher than the target of 1.05, which Ester attributed to a pair of nonfatal injuries.
The FTA’s latest instructions come as the T attempts to balance a series of changing conditions, including an ongoing driver shortage, the planned opening of a long-awaited extension to the Green Line to Medford, and the implementation of a new bus map.
Meanwhile, an operator shortage continues to mean reduced service systemwide.
In an e-mail, Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said the agency currently has 1,488 bus operators and is working to hire another 300. He added that operator wages increased 2.5 percent over the summer.
The T announced additional cuts to bus service beginning Dec. 18, which include reduced frequency during rush hour on a half-dozen routes. Five of those routes — the 66, 77, 101, 104, and 109 — are among those on which the T had recently promised to have service every 15 minutes starting next year.
Pesaturo said the current winter schedule will have 2.3 percent fewer trips than last winter. Several other bus lines will also drop a trip or two, including routes 1, 78, and 94.
Aloisi said the T will need to pay workers more to reach its hiring goals and hoped Governor-elect Maura Healey and the incoming Legislature would address budget issues, as well as lobby Washington for urgent federal support.
“Just like we’re holding the T accountable, we need to hold the FTA accountable for making sure that this safety review produces results but also does not short-change T riders,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Thursday Healey told reporters that she could be open to designating one seat on the MBTA board for the city of Boston, which Mayor Michelle Wu has been pushing for for years and reiterated recently in multiple letters to legislative leaders.
Currently, Boston lacks a voice on the MBTA’s board, leaving it without any official oversight over the state-operated transit agency its residents heavily rely on.
”I think it’s critically important that we have a functioning T, that we have a transportation system here in the Commonwealth that works not just for Boston . . . but for the entire state,” Healey said.
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.