MBTA's long-term projects jeopardized daily operations and safety, federal report says

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MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and state Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler walk into a garage at the Wellington train yard in Medford this summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and state Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler walk into a garage at the Wellington train yard in Medford this summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Federal Transit Administration has ordered the troubled MBTA to address 53 problem areas ranging from staffing and safety management to communications and operating policies, and called for an overhaul of safety culture inside the T.

In a 90-page report released publicly Wednesday morning, the FTA said its investigation found that the MBTA had starved its operating budget by moving $500 million into its capital budget this year, putting stress on staffing and safety. The FTA ordered the T, its board and the state's Department of Public Utilities to collaborate to prioritize safety for riders and employees.

"This is an opportunity for them to begin creating a safety culture," Paul Kincaid, an FTA administrator, said at a press conference Wednesday.

The FTA stopped short of assuming safety oversight of the T — as it did with the Washington D.C. transit system in 2015 — but indicated it would remain involved in ensuring the directives are resolved.

"This is the end of our safety management inspection, but it is not the end of FTA's involvement," Kincaid said.

Kincaid said the FTA found the shifting of the budget money "not advisable," but that it was not in the federal agency's purview to punish leaders of the T. "This is a turning point, not a time for recriminations," he said. However, he emphasized that it's incumbent on the state DPU to "make sure it's doing its job" in overseeing the T.

DPU spokesperson Troy Wall said in a statement that the department "takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the safety of riders" on the MBTA and looks forward to "ongoing collaboration with state and federal transportation officials."

Following the release of the findings, Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton said he believes it's time for a change of leadership at the MBTA. "I don't know how you can read this report and not believe that, absolutely, that has to happen," he said on WBUR's Radio Boston. "We need to bring in some professionals who know how to run transit systems, because I ride around the country and around the world, and it's a totally different experience."

The federal report criticized the MBTA for focusing on large projects and diverting funding away from daily operations.

Those large improvement projects are often touted by Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration has overseen the T since he took office in 2015. Baker declined Wednesday to comment on whether the DPU was up to the task of monitoring the T. In a statement, he said, the DPU has "taken a number of steps to address the FTA’s findings, and our administration will ensure they have all the resources necessary to strengthen their oversight of the MBTA."

Also on Wednesday, Baker filed a supplemental budget that would make an additional $200 million available to the T to address the safety requirements, and $10 million to address the staffing challenges.

MBTA general manager Steve Poftak in statements to the press said the T will need to hire at least 2,000 new employees to address the FTA's directives. The agency also will have to undertake a five-year workforce assessment plan. While the system is in the early stages of addressing about one-third of the projects identified by the FTA, Poftak said for at least half of them, the T will be starting from scratch.

“We’ve obviously already started the process of analyzing this report” and coming up with responses, Poftak said. "We envision this as a multi-year effort."

Katie Choe, currently the T's chief of capital delivery, will run a new office of quality, compliance and oversight. The group will be in charge of project management and responses to the FTA's directives.

For most of the issues raised, in four different categories, the T will have to present remediation plans in six weeks. The FTA said it will continue to monitor the T and its progress addressing the government's orders.

The FTA's final report comes after a months-long investigation into what it called “a lax safety culture” at the T. The transit system has been plagued by accidents and safety issues that have now led to unprecedented shutdowns of the Orange Line and portions of the Green Line, causing travel disruptions for many riders.

The FTA first told state officials it was launching an inspection of the T’s transit operations and maintenance programs on April 14 — days after a 39-year-old man, Robinson Lalin, was dragged to death by a Red Line train. In its notification letter, the agency cited “paramount concern” over the welfare of T passengers and workers, pointing to a “pattern of safety incidents” including derailments, collisions and fatalities.

Such federal safety management inspections are rare, according to the FTA. As part of its review, the agency said it would collect “critical data needed to establish the MBTA’s safety risk profile and provide a roadmap to building a robust safety culture.” It also planned to assess the effectiveness of the state’s Department of Public Utilities, which is charged with overseeing the T.

In June, the FTA shared the initial findings of its investigation: 8 in 10 subway dispatchers lacked basic safety certifications. Some employees were working shifts as long as 20 hours with little rest in between. The operations control center was severely understaffed. The maintenance backlog had more than 16,000 open and pending defects to address. And the T lacked adequate safety protocols. At the time, the FTA issued special directives requiring the T to address those problems, and it ordered the Department of Public Utilities to ensure greater oversight.

In July, citing the T’s “continued failure” to rein in runaway trains, the FTA took an additional step of banning workers from certain actions in maintenance yards until they attended a safety briefing. The agency also ordered the T to develop a better system for documenting inspections.

WBUR reported earlier this month that in addition to its equipment problems, at least 25 train and bus drivers still working for the T have multiple safety infractions on their records.

In early August, T officials announced an unprecedented 30-day shutdown of the entire Orange Line — allowing the T to accelerate critical track upgrades that the FTA identified in its earlier findings. T officials and Gov. Charlie Baker said the ongoing shutdown, which coincides with a shutdown of Green Line service north of Government Station, will allow the T to implement repairs that otherwise would have taken five years to complete.

Over the summer, the T switched daily service of the Red, Blue and Orange Lines to weekend levels in response to a staffing shortage that federal regulators noted as a safety risk. These service reductions have been extended into the fall.

Speaking this week, Poftak disputed rumors that the entire Red Line would close in the coming months for maintenance, but kept open the possibility that more targeted shutdowns would occur to allow for maintenance. He did not provide any more details about plans for the Red Line.

Kincaid said the work required to repair the T would take time and may involve continued disruptions for riders in the short term.

"This is going to be a road back," he said. "The T did not get here overnight, and it will not get back to a state of good repair overnight. There is going to have to be, unfortunately, patience on the part of the riders of the T."

This article was originally published on August 31, 2022.


Headshot of Laura Kraegel

Laura Kraegel Investigative Fellow
Laura Kraegel was the Roy W. Howard Investigative Fellow at WBUR.


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Beth Healy Deputy Managing Editor
Beth Healy is deputy managing editor at WBUR.



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