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Now arriving from New York: ‘Reinforcements’ to bolster MBTA executive ranks

MBTA general manager Phillip EngDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Four veterans of New York’s transportation system are headed to top roles at the beleaguered MBTA in new general manager Phillip Eng’s most public shake-up of the agency since taking over in April after a career in New York.

The new leaders will be responsible, in part, for the agency’s faulty tracks and crumbling stations. And on Thursday they were confronted with perhaps their first jolt of reality about the task at hand when the T’s board of directors unanimously approved a five-year capital budget that provides only about 16 percent of the new funding requested by the agency’s staff, according to previous T presentations.

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Dennis Varley, the new chief of stations, who starts on Aug. 28, said he’s still getting up to speed but is up to the challenge, which he acknowledged is not small.

“It’s a lot, there’s no doubt about it . . . there’s obviously some issues here,” he said. “But you chip away, you make it better, and people start seeing some positive results.”

Those can’t come soon enough.

Subway service has deteriorated in recent months amid an uptick in slow zones, where trains have to travel at reduced speeds because of track defects, and buses are coming far less frequently than they were a year ago. Pieces of ceilings at Red Line stations have fallen on or near unsuspecting riders, injuring at least one. And a key fire suppression piping system that may not have been inspected in years malfunctioned after a train fire.

To address some of those problems, the MBTA’s board of directors approved the $9.7 billion, five-year capital investment plan for the agency on Thursday. The total is larger than the previous $9.6 billion, five-year plan approved last year, a nod to concerns raised by advocates.

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The plan approved Thursday had received pushback from transit and climate advocates for largely maintaining the status quo and failing to advance long-discussed projects past the planning and design phase, such as electrifying the commuter rail lines while increasing the frequency of trains to 15-20 minutes, as well as connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line.

In March, the MBTA said that staff had requested around $9.2 billion in new funding for reliability and modernization initiatives such as bridges and tunnels, maintenance and administrative facilities, passenger facilities, and vehicles, according to a presentation to the board. The plan approved Thursday provides just $1.5 billion in new funding for the initiatives.

MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA prioritizes requests from staff based on available funding.

“The financially-constrained CIP is a priority-driven rolling five-year capital budget shaped by carefully weighing the costs and benefits of proposed projects,” he said in an email.

The new leaders will have their work cut out for them.

In addition to the new chief of stations, Eng has also hired Sam Zhou to be assistant general manager for engineering and capital, Doug Connett to be chief of infrastructure, and Rod Brooks to be senior adviser for capital, operations, and safety.

All four come from Eng’s old stomping grounds in New York, where he led the Long Island Rail Road among other high-profile jobs.

Varley previously worked in top roles at the LIRR, Eng said. Zhou has served in senior leadership positions at the New York State Department of Transportation. Connett comes from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, D.C., where he was vice president and assistant chief safety officer of operations and investigations after spending much of his career in New York, Eng said. And Brooks was senior vice president of operations at LIRR, Eng said.

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Brooks started at the T this week, Eng said, and the other new hires will join between Aug. 14 and Aug. 28. Varley and Zhou will be paid $265,000 per year, Connett, $260,000 per year, and Brooks is on a contract through the end of the year at $120 an hour, with an option to extend for another year, according to Pesaturo.

“I hear loud and clear what the public wants: safety, reliability, all these things will be on my to-do list,” said Zhou. “My goal is to deliver projects on time, on budget.”

Still, he nodded to the extraordinary challenges.

“I’m not Superman,” he added.

Also on Thursday, the MBTA board approved a $119 million contract to buy 80 battery electric buses from New Flyer of America, marking a major milestone in the agency’s long delayed effort to move away from diesel powered buses. The new battery buses won’t be emissions-free though; they will include diesel heaters to help with their range, the agency said.

The first buses of this order were supposed to have been carrying passengers by now, and another 45 were supposed to have arrived by next year, according to the request for proposals. Now, New Flyer will provide the T with the first 10 buses next year, 27 more in 2025, and the final 43 in 2026, according to Bill Wolfgang, the director of vehicle engineering.

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The MBTA used funds from a $116 million federal grant to pay for much of the contract, Wolfgang said.

The T board meeting, which addressed a wide array of issues from train maintenance facility upgrades to renewable electricity, also made time for public comment. There, the mother and friends of Katelyn McCarthy, an Abington High School senior killed by a commuter rail train at the Birch Street crossing in Abington last year, tearfully pleaded with the agency to do more to protect children and the elderly at crossings.

“My daughter was taken from us and my future is over,” said Lori Frost, McCarthy’s mother. “So I will fight for my daughter and all the children.”

The town of Abington commissioned a report dated March 31 from TrafInfo Communications, a transportation consulting company, that examined whether the seven railroad grade crossings in the community meet industry safety standards.

The report found that five people have been killed in 18 crashes at railroad grade crossings in Abington between 1979 and March 2023. The railroad grade crossings on North Avenue and Birch Street had the highest number of crashes, six each.

Since the report was published, that number has grown.

On April 26, a man who drove his vehicle around a lowered gate at the railroad grade crossing on Birch Street was killed after a commuter train struck the vehicle, officials said.

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The report offered recommendations to improve safety at five of the railroad grade crossings. The recommendations for Birch Street included removing one crosswalk and installing a new one at a nearby location, and adding lighting, a pedestrian gate, and a sign.

Eng said the MBTA has installed fog lights, pavement reflectors, and reflective bollards at all seven Abington crossings and is working on installing 12-inch LED warning lights.

Eng offered condolences to McCarthy’s family and friends.

“Safety is something that we have to practice every day,” he said. “One of the reasons we took the action we took is we’ve seen these measures work in other places. So we want to make sure that we did that, we accelerated it, and we will continue to look at opportunities to further ensure safety across our system.”

Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven.