Key lawmaker calls for restructuring MBTA

Suggests narrowing focus to just bus, subway

TO JUMP-START a discussion about the future of the MBTA, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee is calling for a fairly radical restructuring of the transit authority to narrow its responsibilities.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett said the intense focus on safety issues at the MBTA and the upcoming change in gubernatorial administrations provide a good opportunity to rethink how the T should be managed.

“I view this as the start of an important discussion. The timing is opportune,” Straus said.

Straus said he believes the bandwidth of MBTA management is spread too thin. He proposes narrowing the focus of the MBTA to just bus and subway service and spinning off passenger rail, ferries, and major capital projects on their own or as part of some other agency of state government.

“I think what we’ve seen is that historically way too much is asked of the existing MBTA to get all of these things done right at the same time,” Straus said.

Straus provided only a broad outline of what he thinks should be done and not a detailed organizational chart. For example, he said the commuter rail system could be spun off on its own or maintained as an arm of the Department of Transportation. He said it could become a passenger rail authority for the entire state, or separate unit scould be established to oversee passenger rail in eastern and western Massachusetts.

Only part of the commuter rail system – the Fairmount Line, which runs between Readville and South Station — should remain within the MBTA and become part of the subway system, Straus said.

The lawmaker said water transportation should be overseen separately, possibly as part of the Department of Transportation.

And he said major capital projects for the T should be managed separately. He noted special teams were set up to oversee the Green Line extension and South Coast Rail, and keeping them independent of day-to-day operations has been crucial to their success.

“The T should not be viewed as a construction company for itself,” he said.

Straus and the Legislature’s Transportation Committee have held three safety oversight hearings – first with MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler, second with the chair of the MBTA board and T employees, and the third with Ray LaHood, who led a panel that reviewed safety issues at the transit authority in 2019 — and now plan to craft a report laying out their findings by the end of the year. Straus said legislation could follow sometime next year.

Staus’s thinking has evolved during the hearing process. In his questioning of LaHood, Straus was particularly interested in how Chicago divvies up its transportation responsibilities, with one agency in charge of buses and subways and another in charge of regional rail.

At the first oversight hearing, he encouraged his fellow lawmakers to go beyond budget tweaking and hiring fixes in trying to solve the safety issues at the T. “Something deeper has been occurring and we have to find that out,” he said.