Getting a handle on FTA’s to-do list for MBTA

The Federal Transit Administration gave the MBTA a safety to-do list last week, with each task assigned its own timetable.

The MBTA had 48 hours to come up with a way to ease time demands on dispatchers in the subway system’s understaffed operations control center. Unable to hire more dispatchers and supervisors in two days, the MBTA chose to lighten the load of the existing workers by reducing service starting this week on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines. 

The FTA gave the T 35 days to recertify all its workers on safety procedures. That task will be accomplished quickly, as the T said all rail transit employees would be fully certified as of this week. 

The transit authority was given 15 days to come up with a plan for handling vehicles ending up in repair yards with known or suspected brake issues. That safety issue had been the cause of five runaway trains in the last 1 ½ years, the FTA said. 

And the federal regulators gave the T 30 days to come up with a plan to fix the way track repairs are made. The FTA said the transit authority’s engineering and maintenance team is understaffed, underfunded, lacks quality data on track problems, and, by confining repairs to the middle of the night, doesn’t have enough time to get the job done. 

The FTA’s directives will be followed by a final safety analysis sometime in August, which will probably be accompanied by new directives.

“This is only the first shoe to drop,” said James Aloisi, a board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters and a former state secretary of transportation, on The Codcast. 

“We are in a world where the FTA comes in, they make their assessment. They say do this, do that, and sometimes they say do this by a certain time. And then they walk away, and the T is left with the prospect of either losing federal funding – which is the threat that happens if you don’t comply – or comply. So we’re in a bad place here in the Greater Boston area as a result of decades – decades – of bipartisan neglect,” Aloisi said.

Aloisi called for municipal officials, advocacy groups, and members of Congress to come together to brainstorm new ways to fill hundreds of open safety positions as well as new jobs needed to satisfy the FTA’s safety directives. “We need to triage it,” he said.

He said many of the FTA’s directives, particularly the ones dealing with maintenance, are likely to require the T to spend more money as part of its operating budget. The operating budget is currently balanced with the help of federal aid, but once the federal aid runs out over the course of the next year, the T is facing what it is calling a fiscal cliff – budget needs that are far greater than the resources on hand.

The former transportation secretary said the T’s precarious budget situation could be negatively affected by its decision to comply with the directive about staffing at the operations control center by shifting to Saturday levels of service. 

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“It’s not going to help improve ridership,” he said. “It’s probably going to suppress ridership…and that’s not good for the budget. This action will have other consequences, or may have other consequences, that exacerbate the budget problem. It creates its own vicious cycle.”

Aloisi said money alone will not solve the T’s safety problems, but the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker should act now to remove any financial hurdles in the way of dealing with them. He recommended establishing a fund to deal with the FTA’s safety directives as part of the pending transportation bond bill or the state budget itself.

The former transportation secretary suggested the fund should start with more than $600 million, a figure he arrived at by restoring $500 million to the T’s operating budget that had been transferred to the capital budget and by having the state assume the cost of paratransit at the T and the regional transit authorities across the state. The paratransit shift would free up $120 million for the T, Aloisi said, adding that providing rides to the elderly and disabled “is as much a human service initiative as anything else.”