STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 25, 2022…..Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing how to fix years of problems at the MBTA while state government stands on the threshold of a major change, and in the opinion of a former U.S. transportation secretary, they should use that timing as an opportunity to “think very seriously” about dismantling and reimagining the entire transit system.
In less than three months, a new governor will enter office and in the process take control of an agency under pressure to reverse service cuts, find funds to address budget shortfalls and fuel a hiring spree, and respond to a Federal Transit Administration investigation that identified glaring safety problems.
Many of the issues at the T have persisted for years, prompting Rep. Paul Tucker on Tuesday to ask former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if the best approach at this point would be to pursue “a complete reset.”
LaHood, who in 2019 helped produce a 69-page report about safety failures at the T, replied that lawmakers have “got to look at that” as a viable option.
“The current system is not working. It simply is not. The FTA said that, we said that, and the people that are riding the trains have said it over and over again,” LaHood said. “If you want to start at ground zero, the timing is perfect for that right now, politically, because you’re going to have new people in these chairs. If I was in your chair, I’d think very seriously about doing that.”
LaHood, a former Republican congressman who served as transportation secretary in the Obama administration, was the lone witness at the Transportation Committee’s third MBTA oversight hearing.
He brought a unique perspective to the topic. Three years ago, after a string of incidents including derailments and crashes, the Baker administration tapped LaHood, former FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers and former New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco to investigate safety problems at the T.
Their findings were harrowing. The panel concluded in a December 2019 report that the MBTA’s approach to safety was “questionable,” marked by “deficiencies in policies, application of safety standards or industry best practices, and accountability.”
The FTA’s investigation and report this summer made many similar conclusions, prompting a widely asked question: what happened — or didn’t happen — for the same issues at the MBTA to persist in a second probe more than two years later?
In LaHood’s opinion, the answer is clear: COVID-19.
LaHood told lawmakers he “had confidence” that MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak was equipped to address the problems his 2019 analysis flagged. During the roughly three months between publication of the independent panel’s report and the start of the pandemic, the former secretary felt the T was on the right track.
“I believe right up to the point of COVID, he was doing a good job. He was carrying out the recommendations. He was trying to implement the safety culture that I’ve talked about. And then COVID put an end to all of that,” LaHood said. “People weren’t coming to work. They were trying to do this stuff on Zoom, which is impossible because people on Zoom are feeding their dog or — I don’t know what people are doing, but they’re not paying attention the way they would that people do in a room in a meeting. And so look, there’s plenty of blame to go around. We know that from reading the reports, but I do believe if COVID hadn’t hit, this FTA report would look a lot different.”
The pandemic prompted ridership on the MBTA and other public transit networks to crater, depleting a key source of revenue.
Speaking with reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, LaHood said he felt Poftak’s team was “making very good progress up until COVID” and described the April 10 death of Robinson Lalin, a rider who became trapped in a Red Line door, as “very alarming.”
“You just can’t have that happen,” LaHood said. “But you know, it is what it is, the FTA has stepped in, they’ve written a report and we move forward.”
Lawmakers offered mixed reviews of LaHood’s pandemic line of thinking. Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus said there’s “no question that (COVID) played a role.” His counterpart, Sen. Brendan Crighton, said he believes there are “areas that (the T) fell short, regardless of the pandemic,” pointing to Poftak’s push to transfer $500 million from the agency’s operating budget to its capital budget.
“The COVID excuse doesn’t really line up too well there,” Crighton said. “We’ve been told time and time again that ‘We have all the money we need.’ Clearly that wasn’t true. I don’t think you can look at that as something caused by COVID. That was a decision made, a financial decision that they did not want more resources.”
LaHood told lawmakers their top priority should be stripping the designated role of MBTA state safety oversight agency from the Department of Public Utilities, which federal investigators say has long been falling short of those responsibilities, and assigning it elsewhere.
“If you don’t do anything else, you need to do that. To me, that’s very important,” LaHood said. “The orientation of the SSO (State Safety Oversight) needs to be proactive, not reactive. The work needs to be transparent to the public. You have to have transparency. You just simply do.”
At least one top lawmaker, Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee Co-chair Sen. Mike Barrett, has already suggested that the Legislature should expect to debate a bill next session reassigning MBTA oversight responsibilities away from the DPU.
Officials at the DPU have said since the FTA’s investigation they are struggling to attract more professionals to expand their transit safety work, lining up with a broader trend of workforce shortages affecting the MBTA itself.
LaHood also suggested lawmakers create another, fully independent “safety management agency” with staff paid well enough to attract and retain top talent, pointing to his own work chairing a board that Columbia Gas parent company NiSource created in the wake of the 2019 Merrimack Valley natural gas explosions.
“This is a great opportunity with a new administration coming in, an agenda from the Legislature that says ‘we’ve got to fix this for the people,'” he said. “You’re not going to get everybody on board, but over time, you will, and if they see that there has been stood up an organization that gets up every day and once a month is holding people accountable for safety, they’ll get the message.”
Rather than operate an anonymous safety hotline as the T does currently, LaHood said the agency should encourage employees to attach their names when they report concerns and offer rewards for anyone who identifies a hazard.
Quincy Sen. John Keenan said he views the existing safety hotline’s anonymous operation as “symbolic.”
“Nothing to me says any more clearly that there’s a breakdown in the safety culture than when people feel that they cannot raise their hand and be rewarded for reporting a safety issue,” Keenan, a Democrat, said.
The Transportation Committee’s co-chairs said they are not yet sure if they will convene a fourth oversight hearing, and they hope to complete a report by the end of the current session with findings and recommendations for legislative action during the 2023-2024 term that begins in January.
Straus, who in July floated the idea of eliminating the MBTA and shifting its functions to other parts of the transportation system, said the combination of extensive outside review and impending turnover in the executive branch “should direct us towards, frankly, being open to even provocative thinking about what the T is.”
A key question lawmakers will need to address is whether more state dollars need to flow toward the MBTA on a permanent basis to solve its woes. The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker have made hundreds of millions of one-time dollars available to respond to the FTA’s directives, but Beacon Hill has mostly been resistant to rethinking the agency’s permanent funding structure.
LaHood in December 2019 said Massachusetts would need money to make the T safer and more efficient. The House a few months later approved a package of tax and fee hikes to generate more money for transportation needs, but the bill died in the Senate without a vote and lawmakers since then have not returned to the topic.
“Safety has to be embedded in every person who works for the organization, and the job of creating a safety culture is the person in charge,” LaHood said Tuesday. “… Unless that culture exists, no matter how much money is spent, there are going to be problems.”
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