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Safety ‘is not the priority’ at the MBTA, panel finds

Passengers moved down the platform after getting off a Red Line train during the evening commute at Park Street Station.
Passengers moved down the platform after getting off a Red Line train during the evening commute at Park Street Station.Lane Turner/File/Globe Staff

The MBTA’s intense focus on tightening its day-to-day budget while speeding the pace of long-needed projects under Governor Charlie Baker has been detrimental to the operations of the agency and has helped foster a culture in which “safety is not the priority,” according to a withering report released Monday.

The findings, delivered by a panel of experts hired by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which oversees the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, describe an agency struggling with generational problems, such as constant turnover in its upper ranks, and hamstrung by its own decisions.

The MBTA has not invested in necessary resources for its safety department, and there’s widespread concern that the strong push to quickly complete some capital projects has come at the expense of daily operations, according to the report.

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“In essence, safety is not the priority at the T, but it must be,” the panel, which included a former US secretary of transportation, wrote.

It added that among staff at the MBTA “there is a general feeling that fiscal controls over the years may have gone too far, which coupled with staff cutting has resulted in the inability to accomplish required maintenance and inspections, or has hampered work keeping legacy system assets fully functional.”

The panel was hired to review safety procedures and the T’s performance following a June derailment on the Red Line, where a train jumped the tracks as it headed into JFK/UMass Station in Dorchester, destroying bungalows that housed computer equipment that operated the signal system.

The 69-page report covered far more than that single incident, however. It discussed a safety department that has become “debilitated,” critical inspections that are not being performed, and departments that rarely, if ever, communicate with one another.

At a news conference on Monday, Baker said the report would guide his administration. He and members of the safety panel said that the T is safe — but that it could be safer.

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“One of the reasons you do a deep-dive review like this is to find out where your issues and your opportunities are, and that’s exactly what this report represents,” Baker said. “That’s why we’re so glad to have it and so anxious to implement it.”

The findings, however, could dent Baker’s reputation as a reform-minded executive who made overhauling the MBTA a priority after the record-setting winter of 2015 exposed a raft of deep-seated problems at the transit authority.

Union leaders said Monday that they have raised concerns about the T’s safety practices for years that have been ignored.

And the report gave fuel to advocates who have criticized Baker’s contention that the system already has the money it needs.

“An obsession with reducing operating costs while growing capital expenditures has led to an unsafe situation,” Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter.

Baker rejected the notion there are parallels between the MBTA and the troubled Registry of Motor Vehicles. Consultants hired by the state found that the Registry had neglected safety in favor of customer service in a still-unfolding scandal that revealed the agency had failed to suspend thousands of licenses of drivers with out-of-state violations.

“I don’t think safety’s ever been a blind spot,” Baker said.

The panel hired by the T conducted more than 100 interviews as part of its review and made 34 recommendations to improve the system, including cutting the number of legally required meetings the Fiscal and Management Control Board must hold to make it “less burdensome on staff.” The current demands of preparing for board meetings, it argued, “divert attention from operations and safety.”

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Since Baker took office in January 2015, the MBTA has made expanding its capital program — work such as tunnel repairs and signal upgrades — a key priority, and with success. It spent more than $1 billion on capital investments last fiscal year, more than double what was spent in fiscal year 2013.

But, the panel found, many of the T’s maintenance and engineering staffers are “being pulled from their normal day-to day functions” to support the capital projects.

And the T’s simultaneous cost-cutting on the operations side has frustrated staff. By fiscal year 2018, the authority had 5,643 employees, but officials later expanded that to 6,200 by the end of June after “recognizing that they cut too close to the bone,” the panel wrote.

“It appears that on the transit side of the T operation, in many instances, financial considerations take precedence over operational performance and safety, even when it is extremely detrimental to the organization,” according to the panel, whose members include a former US transportation secretary, Ray LaHood; former top Federal Transit Administration official Carolyn Flowers; and Carmen Bianco, who once led New York City’s transit system.

“This mind-set demonstrates an ‘upside down’ set of priorities for running a transit agency,” the panel added.

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The safety department, the panel said, should also be providing day-to-day leadership on safety initiatives, but is “somewhat debilitated in what they can accomplish.” For example, the panel said only one person on the accident investigation team can be considered a “subject matter expert,” and that many times, it’s basically “rubber-stamping” the findings of investigations.

When major problems do occur, the T remains too reactionary, in that officials provide a “feverish response to a very specific problem without developing and implementing a global strategy to address the hazard,” according to the panel.

At the news conference, Baker acknowledged the T will need more money and manpower to implement the report’s recommendations. The second-term Republican, who once campaigned on not raising taxes , stopped short of calling for new revenue for the MBTA but said he will speak with its leaders to determine if more money should be spent on safety.

However, he placed some blame on the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which has yet to agree on a supplemental budget that includes $50 million the governor asked for earlier this year to fund accelerated repair work.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who has said the House will take up transportation financing in 2020, said that while Monday was “the first time I’ve heard” the $50 million would address safety issues, the report’s findings “clearly underscore the need for a dedicated long-term revenue stream” to help the MBTA.

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In its summary, the panel — which the T has so far paid $488,000 for its work — also homed in on the culture of the T. It said that “employees in general do not trust their leadership and therefore, do not share with leadership what is happening in the field for fear of heavy-handed discipline.”

But the experts, while harshly critical of the T’s safety practices on subway and bus lines, applauded Keolis Commuter Service’s operation of the T’s commuter rail system, which must follow Federal Railroad Administration regulations. Those rules, the panel said, are “clearly defined and have fiscal consequences if not complied with.”

Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said he will ask the board at next week’s meeting to reallocate roughly $10 million from money the Legislature allots for the T each year to hire more workers in the safety and quality control departments.

But he also said that making other changes, namely to the MBTA’s culture, are “going to take a long time.”

“I think this is a very sobering report,” said Poftak, who, the panel noted, is the ninth general manager since 2010. “We understood the gravity of this report, and everyone understands the need to change the culture here at the T.”


John R. Ellement and Vernal Coleman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.