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The state's public utilities department oversees the MBTA. Some say it's not the right agency for the job

MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford after announcing the shutdown of the MBTA Orange Line for a month to complete critical repairs. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford after announcing the shutdown of the MBTA Orange Line for a month to complete critical repairs. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Federal Transit Administration on Wednesday admonished officials at the state's Department of Public Utilities to "do their jobs" overseeing the troubled MBTA. But close observers of the T say the utility regulator has fallen short in monitoring the transit system thus far and may not be the right agency for that critical role.

The DPU is best known for its oversight of electric and gas companies and water utilities. It's run by former utility executives who focus on matters like energy efficiency and electricity rates. They are not public transit specialists.

But the federal government requires states to appoint an agency responsible for transit system safety. In Massachusetts, that role has fallen to the DPU for many years, according to a document on the agency's history.

In 2018, the FTA certified the DPU as what's called a federally compliant State Safety Oversight Agency, formally in charge of T safety. Yet policymakers and rider advocates say they've had little to no interaction with DPU. Some didn't even know of the agency's role until this year's spate of accidents and problems at the T.

"We've seen very little actual oversight from DPU over the years. They're just not an active and engaged partner in the MBTA's work," said Chris Dempsey, a former assistant secretary of transportation in Massachusetts, who's now running for state auditor.

The MBTA Orange line is seen here at Wellington Station in Medford where inspectors looked over damage from a fire in early August. Passengers had to break windows and walk the tracks on the bridge to escape the blaze. One person jumped from the bridge into the river below. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The MBTA Orange line is seen here at Wellington Station in Medford where inspectors looked over damage from a fire in July. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

While the DPU has plenty on its plate, he said, the agency's expertise is not in transit safety. "We need to provide more resources and attention to the DPU so that they can build up that capacity. Or we need to move that responsibility to a different entity somewhere in state government."

Utility agencies also oversee transit safety in California and Colorado, according to the FTA. But in most states, it's the state's Department of Transportation.

Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston, said, "I’ve been in the transportation field for 20 years. I learned that the DPU has a role in the oversight of the T yesterday."

DPU spokesman Troy Wall in a statement said the agency "takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the safety of riders" on the T and welcomes the FTA's review. He said the utility regulator created a new job this month — director of rail transit safety — and is working to fill that post. DPU is collaborating with federal authorities "to ensure the MBTA’s corrective action plans are both sufficient and properly executed."

The FTA's 90-page report on the T spelled out 24 specific findings, with orders on improvements the transit system must make in staffing, training, operations and policies. In one finding, it says, "DPU has not demonstrated an ability to address safety issues and concerns identified" during the federal inquiry.

At a press conference Wednesday, FTA spokesperson Paul Kincaid said the T will make decisions on addressing the government's orders — and the DPU will have to stay on top of the progress. "The DPU will oversee those safety activities," he said. "FTA will oversee the DPU and ensure improvements are made effectively and that a good safety culture is developing at both the T and the DPU."

"I’ve been in the transportation field for 20 years. I learned that the DPU has a role in the oversight of the T yesterday."

Marc Draisen, MAPC

Gov. Charlie 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."

Some of the candidates running to replace Baker are calling for more outside oversight of the MBTA. Republican Chris Doughty's campaign told WBUR in a statement that, if elected, he would implement "frequent third-party audits to ensure safety." His primary opponent, Geoff Diehl, did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrat Maura Healy, who is running for her party's nomination unopposed, said she would appoint a chief of safety charged with conducting a "full safety audit" of the transit system and reviewing the role of the DPU.

On its website, the DPU says it performs random inspections of the MBTA's light and heavy rail subway cars and operation facilities. It also says it reviews and participates in safety audits. Neither the T nor the DPU would immediately say how often these interactions have happened. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T and the DPU "communicate regularly."

According to the FTA, federal investigators interacted with DPU staff throughout its inquiry of the T, and DPU management and staff cooperated. The DPU also accompanied FTA in its onsite inspections, "observing how FTA conducts oversight activities."

Wall, the DPU spokesman, said the agency has increased its transportation safety staff from 5.8 full-time workers to nine. It's also looking to hire five more transportation safety experts and may engage a consulting firm to add help immediately.

The agency has undertaken a number of initiatives to respond to the FTA's orders, he said, including conducting weekly visits to the MBTA Operations Control Center to ensure employees are not working excessive hours. It's also visiting rail yards weekly, Wall said, to verify safe working conditions and the implementation of new procedures.

"It's a time to make the DPU aware of what it needs to do and make sure it's doing its job moving forward," the FTA's Kincaid said Wednesday, "and to create a safer, more reliable T for all of Massachusetts."

Related:

Beth Healy Twitter Senior Investigative Reporter
Beth Healy is a senior investigative reporter for WBUR.

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