Tracking the truth
Click here for a timeline of what MBTA officials knew and when they knew it. Also see a suit by the MBTA, a private briefing for legislators, and correspondence involving the defective concrete problem.
For 19 months, the MBTA allowed South Shore commuter trains to run at top speed over rails supported by crumbling concrete ties even though the transit authority knew all of the ties needed to be replaced because of defects.
T officials say passengers were never in danger, but recently released documents indicate agency officials knew far more about the problem on the Old Colony lines than they were letting on over the last two years. Indeed, some comments by T officials appear to be, at best, misinformed or, at worst, deliberately misleading.
“There are about 147,000 ties on Old Colony,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo wrote in an email to CommonWealth on Sept. 9, 2009. “Inspectors have identified fewer than 7,000 that need to be replaced.”
Yet more than a year before Pesaturo made that statement – on June 5, 2008 — T officials say they were told by the company that manufactured the concrete ties that all of them needed to be replaced “in the near term.” That information was contained in a demand letter the T sent on May 21, 2009, to Denver-based Rocla Concrete Ties, Inc., the manufacturer of the concrete ties.
It wasn’t until last month, just two weeks after a new general manager took over, that the T announced there was a indeed a widespread problem with the concrete ties and the cash-strapped agency will have to spend more than $91 million ripping them out and replacing them with wooden ones.
Richard Davey, who was general manager of the private company that runs the commuter rail operations before taking over as the T’s general manager on March 22, said many of the defects in the concrete ties began to show in the spring of last year as the winter freeze began to thaw. “I think the T was acutely aware of the problem,” he said in an interview last week.
Davey declined to answer questions about what actions he took to address the problem while running Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail. He said his decision to rip up all the concrete ties within two weeks of his appointment as T general manager shows the agency is on a new track.
“I can’t comment on what my predecessor was thinking,” says Davey, referring to former T general manager Daniel Grabauskas. “The governor hired me to solve problems and to not shirk away from them,” he said. “The bottom line is this: ignorance is no longer bliss. If there’s a problem we have to address it. I’ve told staff. ‘You bring me good news, you bring me bad news.’ Bad news doesn’t get better with age. We’re being out front on this now.”
Officials at the T and its commuter rail operator were not out front on the issue before. When CommonWealth first reported on the issue last summer, Grabauskas declined to answer questions about the defective ties but insisted there were no imminent safety issues. At the time, he called potential safety issues caused by crumbling ties an “exaggeration.”
Grabauskas, who left the T in August and is now a senior policy fellow with MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth, is still refusing to talk about the issue, saying he no longer works for the T and his memory is unclear without the relevant records before him.
“I no longer work for, nor can I speak for, the MBTA – and as a practical matter I don’t have access to files, relevant staff, etc. and am not privy to what has transpired regarding the issue for almost a year now,” Grabauskas wrote in an email. “You really need to direct questions to the MBTA.”
CommonWealth reported last year that the cost to replace the ties could run as high as $100 million, a figure that was based on interviews with industry experts and experience by other rail lines with similar problems. In the email to CommonWealth last fall, Pesaturo insisted the estimate was far off the mark and the replacements “will not cost the T any additional money.”
But a suit filed by the T earlier this month against Rocla and the demand letter sent to Rocla five months before Pesaturo’s email shows there was already a substantial cost by that time and the tab was growing. MBTA officials are now soliciting bids for the replacements at a cost estimated at $91.5 million, paid for by the MBTA while they chase Rocla in court and seek federal funds for reimbursement.
“The foregoing acts have caused monetary harm to the MBTA, including extraordinary maintenance costs pending replacement of the concrete ties installed throughout the Old Colony line,” the T’s lawyers wrote to Rocla last May.
Pesaturo also downplayed talk that Rocla would file for bankruptcy if held accountable for the defective ties. In another email last September, he insisted “the MBTA fully expects the tie manufacturer of the original ties to honor its obligations under the warranty.”
But in June and December of 2008, Rocla refused to supply free replacements and offered to sell the T more concrete ties for as much as $15.5 million, more than $6 million higher than the cost of the initial ties, according to letters from the T’s lawyers. The final letter was sent last May, five months after Rocla discontinued negotiations, even as Pesaturo and others insisted settlement talks were ongoing.
The problems with the defective ties and Rocla’s refusal to stand behind its guarantee were first reported as part of a CommonWealth investigation in last summer’s issue. The ties were used on the MBTA’s two Old Colony Commuter Rail lines running from Middleboro and Kingston. The Greenbush line running from Scituate to South Station used concrete ties made at a later date but that line will be disrupted when workers replace crumbling concrete ties on the Braintree-to-Boston stretch.
The concrete ties – which cost nearly twice as much as wooden ties but were touted to last 50 years, twice the lifespan of timber – began exhibiting defects after less than a decade of use. The ties purchased by the T were part of a batch of nearly 600,000 made in the mid- to late-90s by Rocla’s Delaware plant and sold to other lines in the Northeast, including Amtrak and the Long Island Railroad. Rocla has continually refused to return calls for comment.
Some lawmakers said they first learned of the problem from news accounts last summer but were assured by T officials things were being taken care of. It wasn’t until a PowerPoint presentation for legislators in late March at MBTA offices that they learned the extent of the problem and the nearly nine-figure pricetag, lawmakers say.
“In terms of the public safety piece, I think we should have been informed immediately and I think we should have been kept up to date constantly,” said state Rep,. Stephen Canessa, a Democrat from Lakeville, a member of the Legislature’s Committee on Transportation. His district covers parts of Middleborough and Lakeville which is the terminus for one of the Old Colony lines. “From a public perspective, there appeared to be very little being done to share this information.”
Canessa said he would talk with the committee’s chairmen about a possible inquiry into the problem and lack of information that was given to the public and legislators. A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray of Plymouth said neither she nor her staff ever received a letter or call regarding the tie problems until the March briefing.
Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Republican from Weymouth who also sits on the transportation committee, said he understands that negotiations that were ongoing with Rocla for some sort of settlement required some discretion. But he said there appears to have been a concerted effort by the “previous MBTA administration” to keep the public in the dark about the issue for reasons unknown.
“It would be inexcusable for a public official and a public servant to withhold information at anytime if it affects public safety,” said Hedlund, whose district includes several towns served by the Plymouth/Kingston section of the Old Colony line as well as Greenbush. “I can appreciate the position the T found itself in but at the end of the day, I don’t know what harm there would have been to their situation by being open and transparent to the public.”Jack Sullivan is Senior Investigative Reporter for CommonWealth magazine. He can be reached at 617-224-1623 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.