T leaders have been accused of a lack of urgency in addressing safety deficiencies at the agency, despite being notified of the seriousness of the matter three years before federal transit officials swooped in to investigate.
“T is failing,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, and the goal of a rare congressional hearing Friday in Boston was to figure out what’s going wrong.
Much of the day’s session dealt with the findings of the Federal Transit Administration’s Safety Management Inspection report, which found operational deficiencies, staffing challenges and leadership lapses at the MBTA and DPU, its state oversight agency.
“FTA has really gone into Ta management, finding that, and again, I quote, ‘The MBTA’s executive management does not consistently ensure that its safety risk decisions are based on safety data analysis or documented facts,'” Warren said.
“I almost fell over when I read that. It’s a bureaucratic way of saying your safety decisions are just made,” she said to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.
Warren questioned why Poftak, after nearly four years as general manager, is just now realizing he needs to gather accurate data to formulate meaningful safety plans for the MBTA.
In response, Poftak said the 2019 Security Review Panel report, which highlighted a number of problems at the agency, was a turning point in its approach to data use.
But Warren said his response signaled to her that he has known about the problem for years, a problem that the FTA says is “serious and urgently needs to be addressed.”
Warren then asked Poftak how many of the 53 findings the FTA ordered the T to take immediate action on had been completed since the report came out on August 31.
Pofak said he did not know immediately, but pointed out that Ta’s deadline for submitting corrective action plans, which must be approved by the FTA, is only on Saturday. Many of those plans, he said, will take years to implement.
Warren took a similar approach in questioning DPU President Matthew Nelson, citing the FTA report, which she said concluded that the DPU had not demonstrated an ability to address the MBTA’s safety issues and concerns.
“It’s your job to make sure the MBTA does its job, and you’re failing,” said Warren, who went on to ask when Nelson first became aware of the extent of the MBTA’s problems.
Nelson said the DPU was alerted to problems at the MBTA through a 2019 audit by the Federal Transit Administration, which released its final report in December 2020.
Warren asked Nelson how the DPU could not have been aware of problems at the agency it was tasked with overseeing until the feds came in and did an audit.
“The DPU was not a watchdog,” said US Senator Ed Markey. “The DPU has become a regulatory black hole into which all safety concerns fall even though they should be identified and then cleared up in terms of the MBTA’s operations.”
While the problems highlighted in the safety management inspection report led to talk of federal bankruptcy for the MBTA, FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez, in response to Markey’s question, squashed the idea.
“The Federal Transit Administration has no legal authority to take over the day-to-day operations of any transit agency in this country,” Fernandez said.
Still, she said FTA will continue to provide oversight to ensure the MBTA and DPU complete all of their corrective actions in accordance with the safety directives issued during the investigation.
Much of Markey’s questioning centered on the MBTA’s lack of transparency about the Orange Line, which is now slower than before the 30-day shutdown, despite promises from the Ta to make it faster and more reliable.
Citing slow-zone tracking data from TransitMatters, Markey said a trip from his hometown of Malden to Boston’s Haymarket took 13 minutes before the shutdown and now takes about 21 minutes, a “shocking 60% increase in travel time.
Poftak said he failed to report that while all planned work was completed during the 30-day shutdown, railroad engineers had identified additional work they wanted completed before winter, necessitating additional speed limits between North Station and Parliament Square. .