T leaders were accused of having a lack of urgency in addressing safety deficiencies at the agency, despite being informed about the severity of the matter three years before federal transit officials swooped in to investigate.
“The T is failing,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, and the purpose of Friday’s rare Congressional hearing in Boston was to gain an understanding of what was going wrong.
Much of the day’s session keyed in on the findings of the Federal Transit Administration’s safety management inspection report, which found operational deficiencies, staffing challenges, and management failures at the MBTA and the DPU, its state oversight agency.
“FTA really laid into the T’s management, finding that, and again, I quote: ‘MBTA’s executive management does not consistently ensure its decisions related to safety risk are based on safety data analysis or documented facts,’” Warren said.
“I nearly fell over when I read that. That is the bureaucratic way to say that your safety decisions are just made up,” she said, addressing MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.
Warren questioned why Poftak, after nearly four years as general manager, is just now figuring out that he has to collect accurate data to formulate meaningful safety plans for the MBTA.
In response, Poftak said the 2019 safety review panel report, which highlighted a host of issues at the agency, was a turning point in its approach to using data.
However, Warren said his answer signaled to her that he’s known about the problem for years, a problem that the FTA is saying is “severe and urgently needs to be addressed.”
Warren then asked Poftak how many of the 53 findings that the FTA ordered the T to take urgent action on had been completed since the report came out on Aug. 31.
Pofak said he didn’t know off-hand, but pointed out that the T’s final deadline for submitting corrective action plans, which have to be approved by the FTA, was not until Saturday. Many of those plans, he said, will take multiple years to implement.
Warren took a similar approach in questioning DPU Chair Matthew Nelson, in quoting from the FTA report, which she said concluded that the DPU has not demonstrated an ability to address MBTA safety issues and concerns.
“It is your job to make sure that the MBTA is doing its job, and you are failing,” said Warren, who proceeded to ask when Nelson first became aware of the extent of the problems at the MBTA.
Nelson said the DPU was alerted to problems at the MBTA through a 2019 audit conducted by the Federal Transit Administration, which released its final report in December 2020.
Warren asked Nelson how the DPU could not be aware of problems at an agency it was tasked with overseeing until the feds came in and conducted an audit.
“The DPU has not been a watchdog,” said U.S. Sen. Ed Markey. “The DPU has become a regulatory black hole into which all of the safety issues fall even though they’re supposed to be identified and then cleared up in terms of the operation of the MBTA.”
While issues highlighted in the safety management inspection report have led to talks of federal receivership of the MBTA, FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez, in response to Markey’s questioning, quelled that notion.
“The Federal Transit Administration does not have the legal authority to take over the day to day operations of any transit agency in this nation,” Fernandez said.
Still, she said the FTA will continue to provide oversight to ensure the MBTA and DPU meet all of their corrective actions under the safety directives issued during the investigation.
Much of Markey’s questioning centered around the lack of MBTA transparency regarding the Orange Line, which is slower now than before the 30–day shutdown, despite promises from the T that it would be faster and more reliable.
Citing slow zone tracker data from TransitMatters, Markey said a trip from his hometown of Malden to Haymarket in Boston took 13 minutes before the shutdown, and is now taking about 21 minutes, a “shocking 60% increase in travel time.”
Poftak said he failed to communicate that while all the planned work was completed during the 30–day shutdown, track engineers identified additional work that they wanted to complete before the winter, necessitating additional speed restrictions between North Station and Assembly Square.