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MBTA’s struggle to address safety at same time it rebuilds system may come down to money

A June Red Line derailment that damaged a shed with crucial electronics triggered the just-completed safety review of MBTA operations.
A June Red Line derailment that damaged a shed with crucial electronics triggered the just-completed safety review of MBTA operations.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2019/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority says it has begun to whittle away at a few of the problems noted in a scathing report on safety procedures at the transit system, but officials warn that fully implementing the long roster of recommended fixes will require more money, people, and time.

Already, the MBTA has begun developing new safety metrics based on those used by other transit systems — one of the first recommendations listed by the panel.

The T is also creating positions for safety experts and a new process to quickly address high-priority safety issues, general manager Steve Poftak said Monday.

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But that’s just a fraction of the more than 60 recommended actions from a three-member panel of transit experts that was convened after June’s catastrophic Red Line derailment. Many of the recommendations would require additional funding.

“You can’t do it on the cheap,” Ray LaHood, a former US transportation secretary who served on the safety panel, told the T’s governing board Monday. When a board member asked whether the T would need more money for daily operations, LaHood responded: “Talk to the governor. Talk to the Legislature.”

Most of the recommendations in the report focus on staffing, training, employee communication, and data tracking. Some, however, are more tangibly obvious to riders who are struggling through their commutes today — such as one that says the T should continue to maintain subway cars as long as they’re in service, even if new cars are coming soon.

Startling in some ways, the safety report is familiar in others: It’s just the latest study to suggest the MBTA needs more money. It contends the T is diverting resources from daily safety-oriented work to big infrastructure projects meant to improve the system long-term, such as buying new subway cars and replacing aged rail equipment. The budgetary whack-a-mole is playing out as the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker grapple over the T’s funding.

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Baker had long resisted the idea that the MBTA needs a new dedicated funding source, for either daily operations or capital expenses. But several months ago, following the Red Line derailment that triggered the safety review, Baker asked the Legislature for an additional $50 million. On Monday, he said that money would allow the MBTA to improve safety oversight without slowing down capital projects.

“The resources need to be there for the T to be able to do both of these things well at the same time,” he said.

Baker first asked for that money in June, saying it would help fund preventative maintenance and inspections. But the request remains mired in a budget dispute on Beacon Hill, and if the impasse isn’t resolved this week, the state comptroller has said that he will move the pot of money that includes the additional T spending into the state’s rainy day fund, where it will be harder to access.

Baker also said his administration would “factor in” the T’s needs when it submits a state budget proposal in January.

Meanwhile, the House is expected to debate transportation fixes and funding later this winter, after postponing debate that had been planned for November. Representative William Straus, who leads transportation policy in the House, said the report makes it clear the MBTA needs more money, or else either safety or systemwide improvements will suffer.

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“I think there’s enough on the public record now — in terms of derailments, fires, and operational or mechanical problems that we’re seeing — that the governor needs to look realistically at this and acknowledge that it’s time to join in and support more money for the T,” Straus said. Deferring maintenance on roads and bridges could also pose problems, he added.

But even if the House passes a transportation funding bill next year, the Senate has not committed to addressing the issue in 2020.

The report was rife with examples of how a focus on saving money creates safety and service issues. One appears to be playing out on the Orange Line, which is awaiting a fleet of new vehicles the T has long promised will improve service. In the meantime, riders rely on trains that have fallen into disrepair.

“It can be deducted, but not justified, that any significant work on the existing Orange Line cars has been deferred” until new trains arrive, the report said, noting the high likelihood that the new trains won’t be introduced on time.

Indeed, several old Orange Line cars have suffered mechanical failures in recent weeks, while the 12 new cars that arrived to fanfare recently have been out of service for days because of a mechanical issue. Poftak, the general manager, has said the T will review the recent breakdowns to determine what work is needed.

Smaller safety-related functions at the T have suffered in recent years, too, such as clearing brush along the tracks. Roots, tree limbs, and other vegetation can cause fires, derailments, or vehicle damage. But the safety panel was told the T ran out of money for this work, leading to an alarming amount of vegetation along the rails. Funding has since been restored, the report said.

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“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,” the panel wrote.

The report said some employees in maintenance and engineering were being assigned to the aggressive push for capital improvements at the T.

Some issues have more to do with communication than money. For example, the panel noted an outside inspection firm found 1,121 safety issues along the tracks this fall, including 46 “immediate safety concerns.” Many defects — including broken ties and missing fasteners — had already been noted by the T, indicating that management did not move quickly to fix them. It has since begun fixing such track defects, the safety review said.

MBTA officials acknowledged they must get better at inspections and preventative maintenance, and Poftak said he expects to detail next week how much money the T will need to implement the safety panel’s recommendations.

But officials also say the capital improvement projects will result in a safer system, because new equipment is better than worn-out infrastructure. “The capital program is one that is very safety-oriented in taking old elements and replacing them with new elements,” said the chairman of the MBTA’s board, Joseph Aiello.

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The report’s comments on capital projects vs. daily operations has heightened calls from transit activists who insist the T needs more money for both.

“Our prior concern was focused on the T being able to get work out faster, and to perform maintenance activities in a more regular and disciplined manner,” the advocacy group TransitMatters said. “We now add safety to the list.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com.