Digging into safety oversight options for MBTA

Status quo is not working, change is needed

WITH HIGH-PROFILE MISHAPS and equipment failures in recent months, the MBTA is under unprecedented scrutiny for its recent safety record. The Federal Transit Administration’s Safety Management Inspection (SMI) report released in August is just the latest independent assessment to determine that the MBTA is falling short on basic safety measures, putting riders at risk and further eroding the public’s faith in the system. With a new gubernatorial administration and legislative session just weeks away, state leaders and other MBTA stakeholders are presented with a moment to reassess safety oversight at the agency. There appears to be political will and momentum to adopt substantial reforms so that riders feel safe riding an MBTA subway car, rail car, bus, trolley, or ferry. But what specific reforms will accomplish that?

In recent months, particular attention has been paid to the role of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) as the Commonwealth’s State Safety Oversight (SSO) entity. The SSO is a federally-mandated program that oversees safety at rail transit systems that are not otherwise overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). In Massachusetts, the SSO oversees heavy-rail rapid transit (i.e. Red, Orange, and Blue Line) and light-rail (i.e. Green Line and Mattapan High Speed Line) safety at the MBTA. (Because it shares track with freight railways, the MBTA’s commuter rail safety is overseen by the FRA.)

The FTA has criticized the DPU for failing to adequately oversee MBTA safety, writing in its safety management inspection report that “DPU has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at MBTA,” and has been “slow to complete corrective actions to address safety concerns.”

The FTA is not the only entity to question the DPU’s ability to effectively oversee safety. Former US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — a co-author of the 2019 Safety Review Panel report on deficiencies in the MBTA’s safety systems — urged the Legislature in recent testimony to remove SSO authority from the DPU and to instead create an independent safety management agency dedicated to rail safety.

The MBTA Advisory Board has published a paper authored by Chris Dempsey that examines the history of the SSO program in Massachusetts and compares SSO models in other states and regions that are home to large public transportation rail systems. Possible future oversight structures include: moving SSO authority to a different, existing entity, such as the state auditor, inspector general, or MBTA Advisory Board; or creating a new, independent entity consistent with LaHood’s recommendation overseen by a board with independence from the sitting gubernatorial administration. Each of these approaches has advantages and drawbacks, but it is clear that the status quo is not working and change is needed.

It may be time for state leaders to consider creating an independent entity to oversee the safety of public transportation, as exists in New York state and at the Washington, D.C., metro system. Such an entity could have a narrow focus, such as focusing exclusively on rail safety as in Washington. Or it could have a broader mandate to oversee safety at all public transportation in the state, as in New York.

Gov.-elect Maura Healey’s proposal for a statewide transportation safety chief could be a good starting point for the creation of such an entity, which would need to be accompanied by the strong support of legislative leaders to provide it with sufficient independence and funding. The creation of a new authority would be a significant undertaking — it took 18 months between when the Washington Safety Metrorail Commission was created by lawmakers and when it actually took responsibility for safety oversight at the Metro system – but it would also demonstrate the seriousness with which state leaders are tackling the problem.

In the meantime, it has been encouraging to see the DPU add additional staff with transportation expertise and elevate transit safety on a crowded agenda that includes oversight of gas and electric utilities, towing companies, moving companies, and more.

Essential to the economic and social health and vibrancy of Massachusetts, the MBTA is facing the most challenging moment in its 125-year history of service and its 60-year history as a state-controlled independent authority. Transit safety is first among many areas of concern in need of reform, investment, and improvement across the Commonwealth’s public transportation network. The incoming Healey-Driscoll Administration, the Legislature, the MBTA board of directors, and other partners – including the MBTA Advisory Board — must face these challenges head-on to get the MBTA back on track.

Brian Kane is executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board and Chris Dempsey is the author of the MBTA Advisory Board paper on state safety oversight of the MBTA. Dempsey is the former director of Transportation for Massachusetts and  a candidate for state Auditor in 2022.