FTA Orders MBTA to Make Many New Changes to Make Transit Safer

Federal transportation officials announced Wednesday what they've uncovered during the months-long probe of the MBTA's safety procedures, including concerns that attention to capital projects is taking away from daily operations and maintenance

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The MBTA received a series of new orders from the federal government Wednesday that require the embattled agency to draft a series of plans in the next six weeks to fix major deficiencies in staffing, internal communications, safety management and other problems.

The Federal Transit Administration published an extensive, withering report with 53 findings about the agency and the Department of Public Utilities, which is the designated state oversight agency, capping off a months-long investigation into high-profile safety failures at the T that in some cases have caused injuries or deaths. The announcement comes in the middle of the 30-day closure of the MBTA's Orange Line.

While the FTA did not opt to take over safety oversight at the T as it did with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the only other time it conducted a similar safety management inspection, it will remain involved to ensure changes are made.

Federal officials released a list of fixes the embattled MBTA and its state oversight agency must make to continue getting federal funding.

"This is the end of our safety management inspection, but it is not the end of FTA's involvement," FTA Associate Administrator for Communications and Congressional Affairs Paul Kincaid said. "The T did not get here overnight and it's not going to get back to a state of good repair overnight."

The Safety Management Inspection includes four overarching categories that each require action on the MBTA's part.

The first category involves the management of the agency's existing workforce, while trying to juggle daily operations, maintenance and capital project requirements.

"FTA found that an organizational focus on capital projects has diverted management attention and resources from the agency’s operations and maintenance, allowing the agency to operate a level of service that is not adequately staffed, trained, supervised, or maintained," the report noted under that first category.

Federal transportation officials are expected to announce Wednesday findings after a months-long probe into the MBTA's safety procedures.

The second category pushes the MBTA to work on prioritizing safety management information, which federal officials hope will help transit employees to identify safety concerns and prompt action to mitigate safety risks.

Federal officials say they've uncovered "a lack of routine, consistent, and meaningful communication regarding safety issues across departments and with frontline workers" in the third area of focus in the report. To remedy this, the FTA is requiring improvements to the management of the agency's safety committee process, employee safety reporting program and safety promotion activities.

The last overall category in the report that will require a flurry of action on the MBTA's part deals with operating conditions, along with training.

The report outlines concerns in this category, mentioning "several areas where MBTA is not meeting its own written requirements; does not have adequate procedures, processes, or requirements; does not have adequate training, coordination, and supervision; and does not have independent quality assurance and quality control capabilities."

FTA officials said during the news conference that MBTA and DPU workers were very cooperative during this process, and expressed desire to make safety improvements to the transit system.

"This report shows the T and the DPU how to get the results that the people who ride and work on these trains expect and deserve," Kincaid said. "Taking the actions outlined in this report and following on with a continual focus on important maintenance, rather than deferring it, will create the change that allows the T to be its safest."

Investigators found the MBTA, controlled by Gov. Charlie Baker and his deputies, has overemphasized work on major capital projects at the expense of operating maintenance and day-to-day service.

At its current staffing levels, the T does not have enough workers available to simultaneously run its desired level of subway service, keep the system in sufficient shape, and fulfill the goals outlined in its multi-year capital plan, the FTA said.

MBTA officials said Wednesday morning that they would stand up a new Quality, Compliance and Oversight Office to lead the response to the FTA's findings. That office, which will be helmed by MBTA Chief of Capital Delivery Katie Choe, will exist outside the agency's current hierarchy and report directly to General Manager Steve Poftak.

"We have obviously already started the process of analyzing this report," Poftak said during a briefing an hour before the report's release. "We do have several areas where we have projects that were already underway that we believe will be responsive in this case. But to be fully transparent, that is a limited number of areas."

Poftak says there will be an "ongoing dialogue" with the FTA, as the transit agency submits required corrective action plans to address the findings of the report in the coming weeks. Each category in the report has its own assigned deadline for the submission of the plans.

On the first full weekday of the MBTA's Orange Line shutdown, General Manager Steve Poftak announced how much work has gotten done.

The MBTA has at least early-stage projects underway in about a third of the 53 findings from the FTA's report, according to Poftak. But in roughly half of the findings, the MBTA says it will need to plan and implement a response over time.

"A challenging day for us here at MBTA," Poftak said. "But also a day I believe of opportunity for us to further refine and make our organization safer and to improve how we operate ourselves."

There will be service changes on all the T lines except the Blue line, including fewer service runs on the Green Line branches during the week and weekends, effective on August 28. Many bus lines are also affected on the same date.

The agency risks losing federal funds if it fails to address the orders.

While the FTA will remain involved to ensure changes are made, it has not opted to take over safety oversight at the T as it did with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority the only other time it conducted a similar safety management inspection.

Baker also filed a supplemental budget bill Wednesday that would make another $200 million available for the MBTA to use on safety fixes, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars lawmakers already appropriated for that purpose.

The safety management inspection of the troubled public transit system has been a months-long process, and followed several high profile incidents that resulted in the death or injury of its riders. Since the federal review was announced in May, there have been multiple additional episodes involving the MBTA, including the passenger evacuation onto a bridge over the Mystic River, when an Orange Line train caught fire.

Monday's commute in Boston, the first of the monthlong Orange Line shutdown, was deemed a success by city and state leaders.

The FTA got involved after the death of a 39-year-old man earlier this year, whose arm got stuck in the doorway of a Red Line train at the Broadway platform and was dragged.

In June, federal officials issued a number of safety directives concerning staffing at the Operations Control Center, general safety operating procedures, delayed critical maintenance and lapses in staff safety certifications.

The MBTA has said that in response, it's made a number of changes. The directives are also a big reason for the ongoing shutdown of the Orange Line, as crews work around the clock to get repair work done.

Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren issued a statement hours ahead of the announcement.

A passenger died after having his arm stuck in the door of a train on the Red Line of the MBTA.

"The Federal Transit Administration’s report underscores what we already know: the MBTA’s current crises are the unprecedented consequences of systemic negligence, underinvestment, and mismanagement of Greater Boston’s public transit system," the two senators wrote. "It is shameful for the first public transportation system in our country to have reached this entirely preventable point, where deep service cuts and wholesale shutdowns of subway lines are deemed necessary to get the T back on track. It is unacceptable that the MBTA has forced riders to carry the burden of the Baker Administration’s failures."

The State House News Service's Chris Lisinksi contributed to this report.

NBC/State House News Service
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