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Lawmakers ask DPU chief to testify at hearing on MBTA safety

MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MBTA Orange Line cars at the Wellington train yard in Medford. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

State lawmakers have asked the head of the Department of Public Utilities to testify on the agency’s role monitoring safety at the troubled MBTA, at a hearing slated for early October.

In a letter sent Friday to DPU chief Matthew Nelson, the chairs of the Legislature’s joint committee on telecommunications, utilities and energy wrote that they were “disturbed and disappointed” to read the Federal Transit Administration’s sweeping report released this week on safety problems at the T.

“The document has much to say about the MBTA, but it also has much to say about your agency,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by WBUR. The letter cited statements by the FTA in its report, including that the DPU ”has not demonstrated an ability to address safety issues.”

Among the issues lawmakers plan to raise with Nelson are whether DPU is “motivated enough” to fulfill its role overseeing safety at the MBTA, and whether it is independent enough from the governor and the T. They also will ask whether the DPU has enough people and resources to do this job.

In an interview, state Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the joint committee, said, “So far as we can tell, the transportation oversight division of the state DPU has 11 authorized positions. Only nine are filled at present. But this division has to cover a lot of ground.”

He said DPU already has a challenging task at hand dealing with the climate crisis and a potential move away from natural gas.

“You've got the possibility that the overarching climate crisis will crowd out safety monitoring” at the T, Barrett said. “But you've also got the equal possibility that a fire drill around a safety emergency will cause the DPU to backburner the climate issue.”

The FTA in its report ordered the T and the DPU to immediately address 24 findings on problems related to staffing, training, equipment handling and policies — and to come up with action plans within six weeks. At its press conference on the report, FTA spokesman Paul Kincaid said DPU officials need to "do their jobs" overseeing the T's safety.

The DPU had no immediate comment on the request for Nelson to testify. Barrett said Nelson has agreed to do so, and that they are working out a specific date.

WBUR reported on Thursday that a number of policymakers and rider advocates were concerned that the DPU is not up to the task of overseeing the T’s many problems resulting from understaffing and postponing everyday maintenance for years. The DPU (and its earlier entities) has been nominally in charge of T safety for decades, but was required in 2018 under federal rules to become certified as a safety oversight agency.

The DPU is run by people with expertise in energy and utilities, not transit. The agency in mid-August created a new job, director of rail transit safety, which it's looking to fill.

In an interview, Chris Dempsey, a former assistant secretary of transportation who is now running for state auditor, said in his experience the DPU has fallen short in overseeing T safety.

“They have a lot on their plate,” he said. “They also oversee things like electrical utility systems. It may be that we need to reassess whether the DPU is the right place to put that authority for real oversight.”

The FTA has said the DPU was fully engaged in the feds' investigation of the T, and has cooperated with the inquiry.

Related:

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

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