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State officials defend T oversight amid push to strip powers

Legislators on Beacon Hill today pushed the body that oversees the T to explain why it should continue in that role. Some lawmakers say the Department of Public Utilities is unfit for the job.

State Sen. Michael Barrett, co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, put DPU chair Matt Nelson on the spot after Nelson defended his department's efforts on T safety.

"So we should be quiet and just let the status quo continue?” Barrett asked.

Nelson said the status quo cannot continue.

"And I don't think I've delivered that message at all today," he said. "What I am saying though is we are in the middle of expanding the division and trying to invest in the [staff].”

The DPU is also responsible for overseeing electric, natural gas and water utilities in the state.

Nelson said the department is having a hard time finding qualified applicants for transit safety jobs. But he said he faced similar concerns in the aftermath of the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions, and the agency has since performed well in that role.

"I've had to rebuild that division," Nelson added. "We're now seeing that with the MBTA."

But any effort to overhaul T oversight could hinge on attracting the right staff.

Elizabeth Cellucci, who oversees the transportation oversight department at the DPU, told lawmakers Thursday she wants to hire more people, including another auditor and two more compliance officers, but the jobs are hard to fill because they are in a "real niche area," she said.

DPU's answers didn't sway some legislators. After the hearing, Barrett told WBUR he will push to strip the DPU of its oversight of the T in the coming legislative session.

"If the DPU can't hire up, it's quite possible that a new state operation gaining a fresh start [and] promoting mass transit safety might be the way to go," he said.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she will convene a federal hearing in Boston next Friday to examine "management failures" at the DPU and MBTA and the economic impacts of inadequate transit maintenance and oversight. FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez confirmed she will testify at the Oct. 14 hearing at the JFK Federal Building.

With reporting from State House News Service's Chris Lisinski.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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