BOSTON (WHDH) - BOSTON, FEB. 2, 2023…..With service cuts and slow zones still stymying travel on the MBTA, Gov. Maura Healey pledged Thursday that she would “not sugarcoat” the outlook at the agency and pitched her administration as sympathetic to the widespread frustrations felt by riders.
Healey, who took a brief, publicized Red Line ride en route to a tour of the MBTA’s dispatch center, said she and her top transportation deputies recognize they “have work to do” to address a worker shortage underpinning many of the T’s problems and to provide MBTA users with more information about what they should expect.
Like her predecessor, who took office amid the disastrous winter of 2015 that exposed an array of problems at the T, Healey is starting off as governor with the agency’s myriad failures top of mind for many residents.
Healey sought to portray herself as aware and unshaken by blunt truths about the T. “I’m not gonna sugarcoat anything,” she said at one point. “I told you from the outset: we will be transparent with whatever the facts are.” She said her budding administration knows the MBTA “has been the subject of a lot of frustration.”
“We want to, first of all, make sure that people understand [that] we understand your frustration. We know the challenges it presents in terms of your ability to get to work, to get to doctor’s appointments, just to live your lives,” Healey said. “We understand people’s frustrations with shutdowns, delays and the like, and again, our commitment is to working real hard to deliver a public transit system that is safe and reliable.”
And Healey said Thursday that she is ready to take on that challenge.
“I think as governor, I’m ultimately responsible,” she replied when asked if she would take full ownership for future failures at the T. “You know, ultimately, that may not be the most politically correct answer for me to offer you, but understand that as governor, whether I have responsibility or not, I view it as my responsibility to do everything I can to marshal the T, to marshal the resources, to be transparent with the public about what’s actually going on, what the needs are, to not hide the ball on anything, and to try to work our tails off every day to deliver and make better on any number of fronts.”
The Baker administration’s approach to the MBTA, particularly in its later years, drew the ire of many members of the riding public, transportation advocates and some lawmakers frustrated by a lack of transparency about regular disruptions to train and bus service. Gov. Charlie Baker often responded to questions about problems with the T by touting the amount of money his administration had invested in capital projects.
Healey will face early hurdles in her pledge to be more forthcoming. Although she toured the T’s operations control center, Healey did not speak specifically during her 25-minute press conference about the staffing outlook there or when the MBTA would have enough dispatchers to reverse Red, Orange and Blue Line service cuts that have been in place since June, when the Federal Transit Administration warned that T dispatchers working excessive hours posed safety problems.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the T has 26 full-time dispatchers employed currently and needs another six for the OCC “to be fully staffed and compliant with FTA guidance.” Pesaturo said he could not provide an estimate for how long it would take to bring on board six more dispatchers, but noted five are in training.
“Internal recruitment continues to help bolster the staffing levels and the T continues to offer signing bonuses to incentivize qualified candidates,” Pesaturo said.
Healey spoke more generally about workforce challenges, which stretch beyond the operations control center to the fleet of bus drivers and many other key roles.
The FTA estimated in the summer that the T might need as many as 2,000 more workers to safely run existing service levels, and Healey has said she plans to fund hiring 1,000 additional T employees during her first year in office.
“We simply don’t have enough trained workers to carry out essential operations. The hard-working men and women at the MBTA need more support,” she said Thursday. “It’s clear that previous hiring efforts have not produced the results that we need.”
Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca, who began that job on Monday, said she sees “no time to waste with regard to doing the necessary hiring.”
“As Governor Healey often says, we can’t have a functioning economy without a functioning transportation system,” Fiandaca said. “This transformative time in transportation and the MBTA — there’s a sense of urgency to get things right.”
Healey’s quick-hit trip on the T came exactly four weeks into her first term, an early signal of attention on the transit system whose woes dominated headlines during her campaign.
She and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll walked from the State House to Park Street station, where they were greeted by a crowd of about a dozen reporters who tagged along for the ride. They waited two minutes for a train, then rode it two stops to South Station. Even with a brief pause for a “schedule adjustment,” the journey aboard the Red Line took a total of about four minutes.
The train was nearly empty, save for a handful of travelers, including one man in business attire who suddenly found his daytime commute swarmed by the top two statewide elected officials, their aides and a media gaggle. Shortly before he stood up and left, Driscoll leaned over and said, “Sorry, man.”
During that time, Healey and Driscoll chatted with a pair of women from Franklin, who described their trip into Boston to visit Mass Eye and Ear and commented on how taking the train was faster than driving. The drive from Franklin to the health care facility is about 45 miles.
“Instead of a drive that often takes two hours, just 58 minutes to get in and get out (via the T),” Healey later said, recalling her conversation on the Red Line. “That’s the kind of service we want to be able to deliver, that’s the kind of service we want to be able to incent. We know we want to get people out of cars to address some of our climate goals and needs, and one way to do that is providing transportation, public transit, that is safe and reliable.”
Healey, who during the campaign quietly moved from the South End to Cambridge, told reporters aboard the Red Line that it had “been a little while” since she last rode the T. Driscoll said she traveled into Boston from her hometown of Salem via commuter rail earlier Thursday morning.
“It’s a good ride. Nice and on time,” Driscoll said. “I’ve been trying to take it once a week at least, when the schedule allows. It’s pretty convenient out of Salem.”
Baker regularly drew criticism for not using the MBTA more frequently and for limiting his trips on the service to brief, publicized tours, often related to the rollout of new vehicles or some other positive milestone. (Asked in 2019 why he did not take the commuter rail from his hometown of Swampscott to Beacon Hill, Baker replied that he did that for years before his governorship and added, “I’m not a virtue signaler.”)
Healey and Driscoll disembarked at South Station and then walked to the MBTA’s operations control center, a darkened, cavernous room with a curved wall of gigantic screens stretching in a near-perfect semicircle from one end to the other. The screens show real-time information about train and trolley locations as well as signals on all four major subway lines, rendered in dense diagrams difficult for outsiders to interpret.
As many commentators pointed out, a two-stop trip on the Red Line in the middle of the day is not particularly representative of what it’s like to commute via T regularly. Healey and Driscoll did not face long headways between trains nor see much impact from slow zones that plague the Red and Orange Lines.
“Good luck to her. We all just got dumped at South Station by a Braintree train. 2 Ashmont trains in the meantime,” replied one Twitter user.
Among those who had a more optimistic reaction was former Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders.
“Rode the red line twice this week, back and forth from Cambridge to Boston….worked fine,” Sudders tweeted. “Will ride one more time this week!”
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