It’s been a year to forget for the MBTA, which saw its trains run loose, catch on fire, collide, derail and kill a rider; an alarming number of safety failures that prompted a rare federal investigation and questions about the future of the agency.
And while these incidents piled up, the public was often left in the dark, including just this week when the MBTA, without any sort of announcement, began removing new Orange Line trains and cutting service after a mechanical failure was discovered in nine cars.
The MBTA also declined to share with the public its plans to shut down the entire Orange Line for 30 days in August, and instead finally announced the service closure after the Herald and other media outlets had already reported the news.
The shutdown occurred after an Orange Line train caught fire on the Dana Bridge in July, prompting frightened passengers to kick out windows to escape onto the electrified rail and one woman to leap into the Mystic River.
And it failed to report that it had become the subject of a federal investigation into its subway system for a month, and after the story had already appeared in the media, following a fatality that occurred on the Red Line in April, when a man was dragged to his death after his arm became trapped in a faulty train door.
“I wasn’t surprised by 2022,” said Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which is made up of representatives from 176 communities serviced by the T. “This is the fallout of policy decisions and policy failures made in the early 2000s, in 2009 with the failed MassDOT reform. This is what rhetoric before revenue gets us.”
Kane said he doesn’t expect 2022 to be a turning point for the MBTA, despite the vast amount of scrutiny that now follows the agency as it works to comply with safety directives from the Federal Transit Administration.
Instead, it’s a continuation of “what we’ve seen for the past 20 years,” he said, and a natural accumulation of years of deferred maintenance.
“We have the wrong policies in place and we keep wondering why things don’t change when we don’t change anything,” Kane said. “So, I hope the new administration changes things and it gets better.”
Jarred Johnson, TransitMatters executive director, said that if the MBTA wants to get things back on track, it needs to start by improving morale, making actual headway on hiring and restoring rider confidence.
He said management needs to work with labor to ensure that both staff and future hires are paid competitive wages and have a good work environment.
“The T needs to make the agency one of the best places to work,” Johnson said. “That’s key to both retention and recruiting new staff.”
He said the MBTA also needs to prioritize bus and Commuter Rail electrification, saying that its prior 2030 deadlines are “not even remotely realistic, and we’re dangerously close to missing 2040 as well.”
This year’s repeated safety failures and federal investigation have also raised questions about the T’s future.
The Joint Committee on Transportation, which was tasked with holding legislative oversight hearings on the MBTA, is compiling its final report with conclusions about safety issues at the agency, which will be released by Jan. 3.
William Straus, who co-chairs that committee, favors stripping the MBTA of its construction responsibilities, and having it solely focus on public transit operations.
He also suggested that the T be dissolved and moved into a public transit division of MassDOT, an idea outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker was open to, but one that Gov.-Elect Maura Healey has not committed to exploring.
Healey has said she plans to appoint a new general manager with transit operations and management experience, and a transportation safety chief who will “be responsible for making sure that everything is inspected” at the T.
The incoming governor said she plans to review the Department of Public Utilities’ continued state oversight of the MBTA, following this summer’s report from the feds that found the DPU had been ineffective in that role.
Lawmakers and transit advocates have floated moving state oversight from the DPU to a new agency with limited appointing authority from the governor or to a different, existing state oversight entity, such as the state auditor, inspector general or MBTA Advisory Board.
However, Charlie Chieppo, Pioneer Institute senior fellow, said he doubts there’s the “political will” to make difficult decisions and hold the T or its largest union, the Boston Carmen’s, accountable.
“What you have to do is you have to hold management accountable,” Chieppo said. “You have to do something about the fact that middle management is abominable. Nobody will go into middle management because you make more money in overtime as a frontline worker.
“You’ve got to fix the pension. The pension is just bankrupting the place. The kind of things you have to do to fix that is not pretty.”