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Many of the staffing issues that have created safety problems and service cuts at the MBTA mirror hiring challenges that employers across both the public and private sectors face, Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday while hinting he will pursue additional funding for the T as it rolls toward a budget cliff caused by the end of federal pandemic aid.

With the transit agency he oversees facing intense scrutiny from federal investigators and the Legislature preparing its own oversight hearing, Baker said he is “of course” concerned about the “recent challenges.” But he also sought to brush off the blame top Democrats aimed his way by linking struggles at the T to economy-wide factors rather than his management.

Baker pointed to airports and airlines as a parallel to the MBTA, saying they are “having a very hard time delivering on the requirements and the services and the personnel that they’re supposed to have to get planes in and out.”

“Almost everybody who’s in the you’ve-got-to-show-up-for-work business is learning to live with a new normal, and the T’s no different than everybody else with regard to that,” Baker said.

Staffing shortages were one of the red flags the Federal Transit Administration highlighted in the early phases of its safety management inspection of the T, a nearly unprecedented probe prompted by a string of injurious and sometimes fatal incidents on its subways and trolleys.

Different Obstacles To Deal With

Facing orders from the FTA to cease overworking its shorthanded dispatcher workforce, the MBTA slashed weekday frequency on the Red, Orange and Blue lines and then launched a “hiring blitz” in an attempt to staff up quickly.

“There’s a lot of this going on around the economy, both in Massachusetts, around the country and frankly around the world,” Baker said. “Do I think the T needs to deal with these and fix it? Yeah, I do. Are we going to do whatever we can to help them? Of course. Remember, all the positions that currently aren’t filled at the T are funded. They’re funded positions. The T’s biggest problem at this point is getting people into those roles and responsibilities and making it happen.”

The FTA required the T to take immediate action to address insufficient staffing in the operations control center, delayed maintenance, lapsed worker certifications, and lackluster protections against runaway trains.

MBTA officials say they have already renewed all worker certifications that had expired, and Baker also argued that the maintenance outlook has improved since he took office.

“When we took office, there was no asset management system at the MBTA, so no one would have been able to figure out what percentage of tracks had repair issues associated with them,” Baker said. “We built the asset management system and the T has been spending the last seven and a half years replacing miles and miles of track.”

Still, federal officials warned the MBTA faces a “growing backlog” of unaddressed defects, in part due to limited funding for the agency’s operations side, some of which have left sections of track under speed restrictions that slow down travel. The agency also lacks “quality data regarding the state of its infrastructure” amid a slow transition from paper records to digital records, the FTA found.

Another maintenance issue investigators flagged is insufficient focus on shutting down service to conduct necessary maintenance, a practice that leaves workers with less than two hours per night for track repairs.

Baker Plans Alternate Funding Proposal

“The issue that the FTA had that they raised, which is a good one, is do you have enough time currently when the T isn’t actually operating – between the hours of, say, midnight and 5 a.m. – to do the work required to deal with the track questions that lead to speed restrictions,” Baker said. “If the FTA has a better way to help the T think about how it uses that time that’s available, when they aren’t actually in operation, to improve the quality of the track that they currently know they need to fix so they can lift those speed restrictions, I’m all in on that.”

As commuters across the region adjusted to less frequent and more crowded subway service, House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka last week pinned fault on Baker, who early in his first term seized greater control over the MBTA.

The state legislature’s Transportation Committee plans an oversight hearing to explore failures at the T in a public forum, but hasn’t announced a date yet. Baker said Monday he was “not surprised” by that announcement.

The House also packed $400 million into a transportation bond bill that the beleaguered agency could use to address safety issues spotlighted by the federal probe. While neither the Senate nor Baker has indicated if they support that move, the Republican governor signaled he has another MBTA funding proposal in mind.

Baker’s office declined to elaborate on his plans for MBTA funding legislation. His comments do not make clear if the bill would feature a one-time injection or a new stream of regular, recurring dollars to fold into budgets next year and beyond.

The T has long struggled to produce balanced operating budgets, and that task became even more difficult once ridership cratered during the pandemic. In recent years, the agency has been able to draw from a pot of nearly $2 billion in federal emergency aid to paper over gaps, but budget writers expect that funding will run out by this time next year and leave the MBTA’s operating budget hundreds of millions of dollars in the red.

Citing Labor Crunch, Baker Hints at More MBTA Ops Funding

by State House News Service time to read: 4 min