Lawmakers Slam MBTA’s Lack of Transparency: ‘Riders Will Never Come Back if They Can’t Trust the Information They’re Getting’
Lawmakers in the state’s Joint Committee on Transportation took nearly three hours to grill the state’s top two transit officials on Monday morning, honing in on the MBTA’s recent safety management inspection and the “culture of safety” (or lack thereof) in the MBTA’s workforce.
In April, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) cited patterns of “derailments, train collisions, grade crossing fatalities, and incidents that have endangered both MBTA employees and its passengers” and announced that they would conduct a special safety management inspection of the agency.
But the hottest topic at Monday’s hearing, which put MassDOT Secretary Jamey Tesler and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak in the hot seat in front of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, was the state’s lack of candor and transparency in the public communications about those safety issues.
Several lawmakers at Monday’s hearing noted that they didn’t learn about the FTA’s intervention until Taylor Dolven of the Boston Globe wrote about it on May 9.
“I don’t want to belabor the point, but we had close to a month delay of an announcement regarding a safety issue related to the T,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, the Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee. “When the FTA comes in, it is very serious.”
Lawmakers also asked Poftak and Tesler tough questions about the state’s apparent efforts to obfuscate three derailments that occurred during a closure of the Blue Line tunnel under Boston Harbor.
Public records requests from the Boston Globe recently revealed that Governor Baker’s office had explicitly instructed MBTA officials to withhold information about those derailments in public statements to the press.
“Why would the Governor’s office want to withhold derailment information to the public, and what good does it do to keep the public in the dark?” asked Sen. Crighton. “Why was it the Governor’s call in the first place? Who’s calling the shots at the T?”
Poftak answered that “I’m in charge of the MBTA and I’m responsible for the actions at the MBTA. My focus was on getting the capital work done, and getting it done safely.”
Senator Crighton pushed back: “Riders will never come back if they can’t trust the information they’re getting,” he told Poftak. “If you are in charge, why do you need to seek permission for announcements? How often does the Governor have the ultimate say, if the buck stops with you?”
MassDOT Secretary Jamey Tesler asserted that “the coordination (with the Governor’s office) was vital because (the Blue Line closure) impacts the highway system, the bridges… It was implications on all our other assets.”
Later, after Sen. Eric Lesser asked why it took so long for the T to release the information about those derailments, Poftak answered that “our primary focus was that the work get done safely and get service back to customers as soon as possible,” and characterized how the Blue Line incidents were communicated as a “tertiary concern.”
Poftak and Tesler both admitted that the T could have handled the recent incidents with more transparency.
“We continue to learn and adjust our approach,” said Tesler.
As a result of the FTA’s inspection, the agency issued five special directives to the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, the state agency that’s responsible for safety oversight of the T’s rail operations, to address numerous immediate safety concerns.
In response, the T slashed subway service until it could fully staff up its dispatching center. The agency also closed part of the Orange Line earlier this month to repair some of the tracks that the FTA singled out, near the Back Bay station.
The T expects to receive even more directives when the FTA issues its final report later this summer.
The Joint Committee on Transportation expects to host two more hearings focused on the MBTA later this year. In opening remarks during this morning’s hearing, House Chair William Straus indicated that the second hearing is expected to be scheduled in August, after the FTA issues its final report, “with more frontline witnesses” who can testify about the T’s safety practices.
The Committee has also requested a number of documents from the MBTA and FTA, some of which have been posted to the Committee’s website. Rep. Straus added that the T will be expected to produce more requested documents to the Committee in the weeks to come.