FTA safety analysis of T faults agency’s preoccupation with capital spending

Says focus on infrastructure, trains overshadowed critical maintenance

THE FEDERAL TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION released a safety analysis of the MBTA on Wednesday that paints a picture of an overextended agency failing to balance the need for heavy capital investments in vehicles and infrastructure with spending on safety-critical day-to-day operations and maintenance.

“This lack of balance is at the center of many of MBTA’s safety challenges,” the FTA report said. “Over the last four years, the MBTA’s capital budget has grown four-fold [from $875 million to $2 billion], yet the MBTA is still recovering from the impact of funding cuts from 2015 to 2019 to the MBTA’s operations and maintenance budget, which resulted in a reduction in hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of positions.”

The federal report said staffing levels on the capital side of the MBTA have been increased, while hiring has failed to keep pace on the operations side. Indeed, the focus on capital spending has often exacerbated problems on the operations side.

The FTA said much of the initial work associated with capital projects, including engineering, track access, flagging, and testing, are managed with operations and maintenance staff who are already stretched thin.

Moreover, the MBTA and its board of directors in January approved a transfer of $500 million from the operating budget to the capital budget, a move a FTA official called not advisable. “While the agency is focused on this priority, its aging assets and infrastructure continue to deteriorate and fail,” the report said.

The FTA report cited recent failures, including a fire on an Orange Line train on a bridge over the Mystic River, the death of a passenger who got his arm caught in a Red Line vehicle door at Broadway station, and derailments happening at a pace far above the national average.

“The combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety,” the report said.

Gov. Charlie Baker has often pointed to the sharp increase in spending on capital projects when asked what he was doing to turn around the MBTA, but the FTA report appears to indicate the emphasis on capital spending came at a steep safety cost for the agency.

The FTA report is reminiscent in its tone of a 2019 report issued by a special safety panel hired by the previous MBTA oversight board – the Fiscal and Management Control Board. Reporters pressed MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak on why more wasn’t done in the wake of that earlier report.

Poftak said many of the recommendations in the earlier report have been completed, but he noted how COVID had disrupted many of the hiring initiatives associated with that effort. The report was issued in December 2019 and COVID hit in March 2020.

“I don’t accept the idea that nothing has happened since 2019,” Poftak said. “What I do accept is that significantly more work needs to be done.”

Both Poftak and Paul Kincaid, the associate administrator of the FTA, said the issuance of the report is not the end of FTA oversight of the MBTA. The officials said the federal and state agencies will remain in close contact for years until the issues raised by the FTA are fully addressed.

“We want today to be the beginning of rebuilding the infrastructure, the culture, and, critically, the trust around an important community asset,” Kincaid said in a Zoom call with reporters. “Today can be the beginning of a better safety culture at MBTA.”

The FTA report released Wednesday includes five directives with 24 findings, which are in addition to the five directives issued by the FTA in mid-June. The MBTA has responded to the June directives with a series of corrective action plans to address them and is now charged with coming up with more plans to deal with the latest directives.

Poftak responded to the report by shifting the agency’s chief of capital delivery, Katie Choe, to a new position overseeing a new Quality Compliance and Oversight Office that will take charge of efforts to comply with the safety directives from the FTA.

Poftak said he will use $266 million already appropriated by the Legislature and $200 million included in a supplementary budget the governor filed on Wednesday to address the FTA’s findings. Officials said $10 million of the $200 million will be used to launch a training academy to boost hiring at the MBTA.

It’s unclear how long the additional state funding will last. Even as the FTA directives are requiring the MBTA to increase spending on a variety of fronts, the T has separately been forecasting that its operating budget next year will begin incurring shortfalls that will eventually run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Poftak said it’s too early to launch discussions about new funding mechanisms for the MBTA, saying more work needs to be done first in analyzing the impact of the FTA directives. “We need the raw materials for that discussion,” he said.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation also said it intends to work with a consultant to examine whether it would make sense to create a construction unit separate from the MBTA and MassDOT that would develop, design, and build capital assets to relieve the burden on operating agencies whose focus needs to be on day-to-day maintenance.

The FTA’s five directives focus on staffing capabilities, prioritization of safety management information, better two-way internal communication with employees on safety issues, a greater focus on operations and maintenance, and oversight by the state Department of Public Utilities.

The human resource component is key. “The FTA is telling us that we do not have the workforce we need to run the level of service that we aspire to, to stay at a level of operating maintenance consistent with the FTA directives, and execute the capital plan at the scale and pace that we have envisioned,” Poftak said.

The challenge is considerable, given the high turnover at the agency. As of July 1, 2022, the MBTA had 5,781 employees even though it had the budget to employ 6,679, a shortfall of 898, or 13.4 percent. The T is hoping to hire more than 2,000 employees during the current fiscal year – 900 to fill existing vacancies, 447 new hires, and 744 to backfill positions that are likely to be vacated.

The FTA directed the MBTA to come up with a five-year staffing plan rather than working year to year. The federal agency also said the T needs to demonstrate it can hire more employees, particularly in areas that deal with safety.

In the rail vehicle maintenance department, which handles maintenance of all subway and Green Line vehicles, the FTA said vacancies are currently running at 15 to 30 percent.

“MBTA noted that these vacancies impact both preventive and corrective maintenance activities, and as a result, vehicles required for service, particularly on the Red Line, were not available for roll-out,” the FTA report said. “Additionally, MBTA personnel reported that ‘repairers’ on the Red Line have not yet attended training on the new CRRC railcars, further exacerbating limitations in their availability to service the rail cars. Overtime is currently being used to offset gaps in resource scheduling to the extent feasible. Whenever issues or concern emerge with the performance of MBTA’s aging fleet or new vehicles, MBTA’s ‘repairers’ fall further behind as they must manage these issues through new maintenance inspections or campaigns.”

The FTA report also cited some obstacles to hiring new workers. For example, vehicle operators are required to begin work on a part-time basis for at least two years before winning full-time status. While working part-time, they are paid $22.21 an hour for 30 hours a week.

“Waiting for two years before full-time employment is a deterrent to accepting this type of position,” the FTA report said.

The MBTA has dramatically expanded its safety staff, but the FTA report said the information generated by the staff often lags by several months so the agency is always reacting to problems rather than addressing them before they become acute. In addition, the information is often presented to managers in raw form, which is difficult to translate into concrete action.

“Under this framework, everything becomes a safety priority, overwhelming supervisors, managers, senior managers, and executive management, and resources are allocated to address symptoms rather than causes of safety concerns,” the FTA report said.

The Department of Public Utilities is charged with making sure the MBTA complies with its safety procedures and follows through with corrective action plans to address problems, but the agency keeps a very low profile.

Over the last several years, the agency has taken no public actions in regard to the MBTA and a recent attempt by CommonWealth to learn more from the agency was met with a no comment.

Part of the problem is that the DPU is controlled by Baker, just as is the T. Transit advocates have raised questions about whether the appointed MBTA watchdog is afraid of pointing out problems at the transit authority for fear of offending their mutual boss.

Kincaid said the DPU hasn’t been doing its job adequately. In the FTA’s report, the agency suggested the DPU review its independence from the MBTA, given the shared agency reporting relationships of both agencies.