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. 

“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.”

BRUCE MOHL

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Testing conundrum: To make sure students are prepared for post-secondary success, Jeff Riley, the state education commissioner, is calling for raising the score needed on the MCAS test to graduate from high school. The score changes, if approved, would take effect for the high school class of 2026.

– Data indicate a higher score is needed because students coming in just above the current cutoff are not faring well in college. But the looming debate and vote of the education board come amid growing fatigue among many educators over the role of standardized tests and what their emphasis has meant, in particular, for the struggling schools and students the accountability system is most intended to boost. Meanwhile, three years of pandemic disruption to schooling has even some supporters of higher standards questioning whether this is the right moment to raise standards for the high-stakes test. Read more.

Service cuts: The MBTA is cutting back weekday service to Saturday levels on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines to comply with a Federal Transit Administration directive to ease the time demands on dispatchers and supervisors in the operations control center. Read more.

OPINION

Open up vocational schools: Sen. John Cronin and Paul Weckstein and Sky Kochenour of the Center for Law and Education say it’s time to end discrimination in vocational school admissions. Read more.

Inflation relief: Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts says Beacon Hill needs to provide inflation relief. Read more.

Playing catch-up: Tanisha Sullivan, a candidate for secretary of state, says Massachusetts all too often is playing catch up on democracy in terms of voting and public records disclosure. Read more.

DoorDash disappointment: Vennetia Prevost, a DoorDash driver, is disappointed the ballot question dealing with app-based drivers was pulled from the ballot by the Supreme Judicial Court. She says she wants to live her life the way she wants. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Rep. Steven Howitt is pushing legislation that he believes would curb the crime spree of thieves stealing catalytic converters. (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

The MassMutual Center in Springfield is rebranding, seeking a new name and getting some repairs. (MassLive)

Over the past two decades, the policy department in Stoughton has been the epitome of dysfunction. (Boston Globe)

The whiter the neighborhood in Boston the more likely it is to have restaurants serving alcohol, according to a new study. (Boston Globe)

The Southwick Methodist Church closes its doors after 206 years. (MassLive)

A car crashes through the window of a New England for Trump store in South Easton. (The Enterprise)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

COVID vaccines become available in Massachusetts for kids under age five on Tuesday. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

President Biden considers a national gas tax holiday, which could save drivers up to 18.4 cents per gallon. (Washington Post)

Former vice president Mike Pence, a hero to some and a villain to others for his decision to certify the results of the 2020 election, is venturing out to test the waters for a run for president. (New York Times)

The Texas Tribune provides a breakdown of the Uvalde shootings and the police response to them.

ELECTIONS

Campaign cash keeps flowing in to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu as she plans a delayed inauguration celebration. (Boston Herald)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Massachusetts’ unemployment rate dropped to 3.9 percent in May. (Salem News)

Business leaders want the state to cover the cost of overpaid unemployment benefits. (Salem News)

Rising rent costs on the SouthCoast are hitting immigrants particularly hard. (Standard-Times)

ARTS/CULTURE

Northampton author Ruth Ozeki wins prestigious literary prize in Great Britain. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

The T’s decision to reduce service on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines to deal with a safety directive from the Federal Transit Administration highlights the agency’s difficulty in filling empty positions. (Boston Globe)

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi says the T’s current problems expose the myth of Gov. Charlie Baker’s managerial brilliance.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A group of Boston-area politicians are calling for a city-wide “warrant sweep” where people with outstanding warrants are arrested to help crack down on drug sales and violence at Mass & Cass. (Boston Herald)

The Fall River police start outfitting officers with body cameras. (The Herald News)