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A full plate of disasters awaits T’s safety czar

A falling ceiling panel that nearly hit a passenger is just the latest symptom of the system’s crying need for leadership.

A tile was missing from the ceiling above a set of stairs at the MBTA subway station in Harvard Square in Cambridge on March 2.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The horrifying video of a ceiling panel collapse at Harvard Station, nearly missing a passenger, seemed like a timely metaphor for a crumbling transit system desperately in need of new leadership and multiple layers of safety oversight.

The “big stuff” that has long plagued the MBTA — a fire on the Orange Line, a Red Line passenger killed when his arm got stuck in a closing door, a Green Line collision — has come to define a system that the Federal Transit Administration insisted in a scathing report issued last summer must start prioritizing safety.


Today the riding public can add crumbling infrastructure to the list of the many woes facing the nation’s oldest system. Interim General Manager Jeff Gonneville blamed corrosion for the collapse of a ceiling panel weighing up to 25 pounds and ordered another 76 panels removed and that similar structures systemwide be inspected. And the T’s answer to a long-dangerous and crumbling stairway at Milton Station? Well, rope it off until it can be demolished.

Two months ago in her inaugural address Governor Maura Healey, mindful that “we can’t have a functioning economy without a functioning T,” pledged to appoint a transportation safety chief within the next 60 days “to inspect our system, top to bottom and track by track.”

That was 60 days ago.

Healey also needs to find a new general manager for the T — a job so critical that the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce weighed in on Monday by issuing a report that urged a substantial pay raise for the post in the hope of attracting what Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said should be the “Bill Belichick of the transit industry.”

So this is a moment when everything is possible, nothing will be easy, and time is of the essence.


Solutions to managerial issues — like hiring as many as 1,000 workers at every level from bus drivers to dispatchers, assuring the delivery of those overdue Orange and Red line trains, and that new fare collection system — are critical to a smooth function system.

But safety remains at the top of the list — especially at a time when the work-from-home option has already changed daily commuting patterns and the very face of Boston’s downtown.

“Operationally, things are happening,” Healey assured the Globe editorial board at a meeting Friday.

“Obviously we’re guided by the FTA work,” she added. “We’re making sure we’ve gone through and addressed the concerns outlined by the FTA. That’s really important.”

The FTA report found that “the combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety.”

It faulted the MBTA system for failing to implement safety management systems, to collect the kind of data necessary to correct safety issues in a timely fashion, and to even have a system for communicating those issues up the chain of command.

It also criticized the safety oversight that was supposed to be provided by the state Department of Public Utilities, noting “DPU has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at MBTA.” The report questioned the department’s independence from the rest of the executive branch — something required by federal regulations.


And a recent report by WBUR found that the DPU even now has “continually allowed the T to miss required 60-day deadlines” for submitting investigative reports on its own probes of incidents, including crashes, runaway trains, and rider injuries. Another reason to jettison the DPU as an oversight agency.

The budget provides additional resources to the DPU for safety oversight for now, but that’s not to say the Legislature and other stakeholders won’t come up with a better model, Healey indicated.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll said the process will really start with “hiring a T GM who is going to create a safety culture and enhance safety culture in the building, and then making sure what’s the right oversight. I don’t think we think it’s 100 percent on point right now.”

Meanwhile state Auditor Diana DiZoglio has announced her own “performance audit” of the previous two years.

“Safety issue after issue has arisen and the taxpayers continue to be on the hook,” she said in a statement. “Taxpayers deserve to know how their dollars are being spent.”

And, yes, there is value in looking back — that’s what audits do.

But it is essential to look ahead, to find that next corroded ceiling tile before it falls, to inspect elevators before they malfunction, to complete the job of fixing tracks so that commuters have a prayer of getting to work on time.


That job will fall to the still-to-be-named transportation safety chief, who won’t have a minute to lose in hitting the ground — or the rails — and righting a system that owes the public a safe and secure way to travel.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.