MBTA workers surveyed the scene of a Red Line derailment on June 11, 2019 at the JFK/UMass station. Repairing damage from the incident snarled subway service for months afterwards and led to a scathing independent audit of the T’s safety practices. State House News Service Photo | Chris Lisinski

Top transportation officials estimated they will need hundreds of millions of dollars to fix glaring safety issues at the MBTA and defended the agency’s transparency as they faced probing questions at the outset of a legislative oversight hearing.

In the first of several sessions the state legislature’s Transportation Committee plans in the coming months, lawmakers grilled MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler on Monday about problems that have festered since a 2019 report raised warnings about T safety, a communications strategy that often shrouds information from public view, and the costs of making changes ordered by federal investigators.

“I wish we didn’t have to be here today,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, one of the panel’s two chairs. “I wish we could have a public transportation system that is easily accessible, reliable, and most importantly, safe. All of us here today share that same goal, but it’s important for our riders to have confidence in the system they utilize every day. Right now, that confidence and that trust is on shaky ground.”

Safety Fixes Will Carry Big Cost

Poftak told lawmakers the MBTA will need roughly $300 million to resolve the most pressing problems flagged so far in an ongoing Federal Transit Administration safety management inspection, a nearly unprecedented probe launched in the spring that thrust the T into the spotlight atop Beacon Hill.

FTA officials have floated plans to publish a final report some time in August, and Poftak said Monday he expects it to include “a series of additional findings we will have to address with another set of corrective action plans.”

“I don’t have the visibility that I think you wish I had and that I, frankly, wish I had in terms of being able to identify what additional costs will be. I will say I think there will be additional costs and it will be significant,” Poftak said. “I can’t discern the actual – anything would be pure conjecture on my part.”

Lawmakers are in the process of steering hundreds of millions of dollars to the T to respond to the FTA’s directives. An infrastructure bond bill that cleared both branches but needs to be finalized (H.4897 / S.2989) would make $400 million available to address safety issues federal investigators flagged, and a fiscal year 2023 budget accord on the move Monday (H.5050) also allocates $266 million specifically for the MBTA to use in its FTA response.

A House Ways and Means Committee spokesperson said the $266 million budget injection is designed to supplement, not replace, the $400 million in the infrastructure bill.

The budget bill, which also authorizes a $187 million operating transfer to the T, would expand the MBTA Board of Directors by adding one seat to be appointed by the mayor of Boston and another seat to be filled by the independent MBTA Advisory Board that represents cities and towns who help fund the transit service. Transit advocates had repeatedly criticized the current MBTA Board for lax oversight in the lead-up to the FTA investigation and in statements posted on Twitter Monday, some praised the board’s expansion to include more representation for riders.

T Faces Serious Hiring Headwinds

Since the FTA ordered immediate action in June, its work has zoomed in on staffing levels across the T, Poftak said.

The MBTA has a workforce of about 6,400 today and roughly 800 open positions, Poftak said. His team has a plan “to attempt to hire 2,000 people next year” to deal with staffing shortages, but onboarding new workers has been a “tremendous challenge that is only exacerbated by the environment we are currently working in.”

Last year, the agency hired about 800 workers but that wound up as a net gain of only 100 due to retirements and resignations, Poftak said.

The MBTA’s shorthanded workforce has already created problems running service. In the winter, the T cut frequency on dozens of bus routes because it did not have enough drivers available. Officials also slashed service on the Red, Orange and Blue Lines to cope with a shortage of dispatchers after the FTA’s investigation found operations control center employees were overstretched on lengthy shifts with insufficient rest.

Poftak Pushes Back on Calls for More Ops Money

But Poftak contended that, at least on the staffing front, the T has the money it needs.

“One of our struggles has been that we have consistently hired below budget,” Poftak said. “The money is there, it is that we are having difficulty attracting employees.”

With ridership and the fare revenue it generates remaining depleted more than two years after COVID-19 upended travel patterns, the MBTA is careening toward a fiscal cliff and expects to face an operating budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars next year.

Neither Poftak nor Tesler said the agency will need additional recurring revenue from state government to navigate the impending strain, and Tesler pointed to a significant increase in MBTA capital spending during Gov. Charlie Baker’s tenure, as Baker himself often does.

“Catching up on decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance will take time,” Tesler said. “It cannot and will not happen overnight or even in just a few years, but we are committed to doing the work and putting the right steps in place to ensure it gets done.”

Baker Admin. Accuse of ‘Political Interference’

Another major area of focus for lawmakers during Monday’s hearing was the MBTA’s approach to informing the public about safety issues.

Poftak faced pointed questions from Crighton and from Longmeadow Sen. Eric Lesser about the T’s lack of transparency surrounding a Blue Line project in May, where three construction vehicle derailments extended a subway shutdown.

Citing correspondence acquired via a records request, the Boston Globe reported this month that the MBTA and Department of Public Utilities had draft statements prepared to inform the public about the incidents, but were instructed by Baker’s press team to provide limited information with no mention of the derailments.

“I don’t view it as political interference,” Poftak replied to Lesser when asked about that series of events.

“My energy was focused on the primary and secondary priorities” of keeping the project moving, Poftak added. “This was a tertiary priority. I made the decision not to push back on what was said. That’s a contestable decision, but at that point in time, it was not my first or second priority.”

Poftak said the MBTA is fully in charge of its own “operational decisions” and that there is a “level of alignment” on communication with the Department of Transportation and other administration officials. Going forward, he expects to continue to work with the administration on publishing information.

“The ultimate question is: who is calling the shots at the T?” Crighton asked.

“I’m in charge of the MBTA. I take responsibility for the actions of the MBTA,” Poftak replied.

Crighton also pressed for an explanation about the weeks-long gap between the FTA informing the T of its safety management inspection – a nearly unprecedented step the federal office has taken only once before – and the MBTA’s public acknowledgement of the probe, which only came after the Globe reported about the development.

Poftak said he does not recall anyone at the FTA explicitly telling his team not to disclose that a federal investigation was ongoing. Both he and Transportation Tesler said their approach historically has been to let federal agencies decide how to announce any action.

“This is a federal partner agency. They sent that letter. They notified a number of parties beyond just the MBTA directly,” Tesler said. “Because it is their matter and their investigation, our tendency is to defer to them.”

Straus Raises Threat of Restructuring

During his opening remarks, Straus floated a potentially dramatic hypothetical: why, he asked, do we even need the MBTA?

In the winter of 2015, Straus said, the state highway system functioned “very, very well” amid a series of storms that buried the region under a historic amount of snow, but the T failed so immensely that it prompted Baker and lawmakers to stand up a new oversight board. He also pointed to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which lawmakers dissolved in 2009.

“At some point, it didn’t contribute to the functioning of the overall transportation system,” Straus said of the Turnpike Authority. “It may be, and I don’t offer a conclusion at this point, it may be that we’re at a similar point with the MBTA, that for the sake of the overall transportation system, some of these functions can be performed by other parts of the transportation system.”

Lawmakers plan to convene at least two additional hearings to continue their probe of the T. Straus said he expects to have “frontline witnesses” with knowledge of safety witnesses at the MBTA testify in August, then a third hearing some time in the fall following additional review of documents and the FTA’s expected final report.

Safety Fix Orders Will Cost More Than $300M, MBTA Chief Says

by State House News Service time to read: 6 min