Service cuts, safety woes, and staffing issues at nearly every level.
MBTA chaos and dysfunction have quickly placed Governor Maura Healey — just 10 weeks into her term — into a hot seat familiar to many of her predecessors.
While the new governor says she now owns the T, some advocates believe Healey could be more vocal by forcibly calling out the problems and her plans to address them. She has yet to hire a new general manager at the agency despite declaring in December that she would act in “weeks, and not several months,” nor has she replaced a single member of its board, they note.
A spokesperson for Healey, who lives a stone’s throw from a Red Line station in Cambridge but doesn’t regularly use public transit, defended the governor’s short record and reiterated that she is “committed to enhancing safety and reliability across the MBTA.”
Karissa Hand, Healey’s spokesperson, said transportation leaders in her administration are “delivering a new level of transparency and communication with the public about the issues we face and how they are addressing them.“
Jim Aloisi, a former transportation secretary in the Patrick administration, said the dual crises facing the T — the current breakdown in service and a looming budget shortfall — are far more dire than in 2015, when Healey’s predecessor took office. Then, record snowfall paralyzed the system, prompting new governor Charlie Baker to create a separate MBTA oversight board filled with his own appointments, drawing a more direct line from the quasi-public agency to the governor’s office.
Aloisi said he hopes for an acknowledgement from Healey that the current issues are “urgent crises.”
“And we haven’t quite seen it,” he said. “When you’re in a crisis, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the first week of the job or the second month or the sixth month. You have to deal with it.
“Doing nothing,” he later added. “is not going to solve this problem.”
Even in the two-plus months since Healey took office, MBTA service has continued to deteriorate, driven by the agency’s struggle to hire and retain enough people to operate the system.
Last month, the T announced that 20-plus percent cuts to subway frequency put in place last summer, meant to be temporary, would continue amid a shortage of dispatchers, operators, and trains. Similarly, a year-long hiring campaign for bus drivers has failed. Last week the T said it has even fewer bus drivers than it did in January and plans to cancel around 5 percent of trips on its already reduced schedule this spring.
Then last Thursday night, the subway system ground very close to a halt when the T suddenly announced a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit on the Red, Orange, Blue, Green, and Mattapan trolley lines — down from a top speed of 40 miles per hour. Interim general manager Jeff Gonneville said he had no choice but to slow the entire subway system when the T could not prove to the Department of Public Utilities that its tracks were in good condition or that it had a record of what repairs were needed after an inspection of the Red Line last week.
Since then, the T has increased speeds in some areas, but is still scrambling to verify the safety of its tracks and reviewing track inspections that happened as far back as last fall. T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said 100 percent of Green Line and Mattapan trolley track, and 32 percent of Red, Orange, and Blue Line track remain under a speed restriction.
The service woes have lengthened commutes across the region, increasing frustration for riders.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a grace period anymore, if there ever was one,” said Representative William M. Straus, who cochairs the Legislature’s transportation committee. “I know the governor understands that, that people have limited or no patience.”
Last year an old Red Line train trapped a passenger’s arm in the door and dragged him to his death, and an old Orange Line train caught fire. New Orange and Red Line cars ordered in 2014 to replace antiquated ones still in service have not arrived.
To be sure, the issues plaguing the T are complex and long predate Healey. Even fierce MBTA critics recognize it’s unfair to lay the agency’s problems at her feet. But transit advocates believe there are a variety of steps Healey could, and should, be taking, beyond making several promised hires.
“There is a false narrative that the T is an impossible thing to manage,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance. “Maura Healey does not have an insurmountable challenge. She has a choice.”
Aloisi, the former state transportation secretary in the Patrick administration, said Healey can dust off the playbook Baker used in 2015: Seek a waiver from state law to allow the T to more quickly hire outside help. Replace the board members overseeing the T. And look to reshape its structure, too.
The MBTA’s seven-person board of directors remains stacked with Baker appointees, despite the law giving Healey the ability to immediately replace three members whose tenures align with the governor’s. She also has yet to hire a transportation safety chief, a role she originally said she would fill within 60 days of taking office.
Healey, and those within her team, are actively engaged with the agency, her office argues. She has taken steps to increase transparency and has directed those at the T to follow suit. Healey in February tasked a group of experts to identify ways to expedite the delivery of new Red and Orange Line cars from CRRC, which has lagged woefully, and also launched an online safety dashboard that allows the public to see information about speed restrictions.
Her proposed budget puts forward investments in the MBTA, too, including $181 million for station accessibility and other improvements and $5 million for the T to build out a means-tested fare program.
Healey’s transportation secretary, Gina Fiandaca, is devoting “probably 90 percent of her day” to the T, said Rick Dimino, president and CEO of A Better City, who said he speaks with her regularly. Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll are involved too, said Dimino, who described Driscoll as being “embedded” with Fiandaca.
Baker navigated the early T crises of his tenure by quickly seeking control of the agency and publicly saying so. By mid-April of his first year, he declared that he needed to “own the T,” warts and all.
Eight years later, the results of Baker’s efforts were mixed. While Baker spearheaded large-scale projects and pumped billions of dollars into capital investments, former governor Michael Dukakis last year called the system a “disaster,” and deadly safety lapses have plagued it. Before he left office in January, Baker graded his own handling of it as “incomplete.”
“Nobody should expect a savior. But we do need a stabilizer,” said Chris Dempsey, a former assistant transportation secretary. “There is widespread agreement that things are bad. But there is also a sense that things may be getting even worse.”
Samantha J. Gross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @samanthajgross. Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @mattpstout. Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @taydolven.