Lawmakers plan hearing on DPU oversight of MBTA

Question agency’s independence, expertise, and staffing levels

A SECOND LEGISLATIVE committee plans to hold oversight hearings related to the MBTA – this time concerning the role the Department of Public Utilities plays in overseeing safety issues at the transit authority.

The House and Senate chairs of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy — Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington and Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin — invited the chair of the DPU to testify at a hearing planned next month.

Relying on a safety report released Wednesday by the Federal Transit Administration that criticized the DPUs failure to carry out many of its duties, the two chairs said they questioned whether the agency is “motivated enough, independent enough, big enough, focused enough, and expert enough” to do its job.

The FTA report raised doubts on all fronts. The report urged the DPU to review whether it is an independent watchdog because Gov. Charlie Baker holds appointment authority over both the DPU and the MBTA.

The two lawmakers indicated where they stand. “Maybe the safety operation, wherever it’s situated, should not be on the same team the T is on,” said the lawmakers in a letter to DPU Chair Matt Nelson.

The transportation division of the DPU oversees safety practices of trucks, railways, buses, moving companies, towing companies, hazardous waste companies, and the MBTA.

The lawmakers in their letter questioned whether the agency has enough staff (11 positions in the transportation division, only nine of which are filled) to adequately do the job. They also noted the agency is best known for its regulation of public utilities and questioned whether it has the overall bandwidth to carry out all of its duties.

“We wonder whether the state agency that must tackle the increasingly urgent questions of natural gas and electric power in a time of climate crisis should also handle inspections of household moving companies and towing companies,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “The damage from stretching the DPU too thin could cut in both directions. Either the safety mission could suffer due to the ever-growing concern about climate problems, or the climate mission could suffer due to the fire-drill nature of safety problems.”

Baker administration officials have pledged to expand the staff of the DPU’s transportation division and increase the number of audits, but there has been little talk about increasing transparency. Over the last few years, when safety problems at the T have surfaced, the DPU has never gone public with any of its work.

Indeed, the agency declined comment when approached by CommonWealthrecently for information on its safety work.

The DPU oversight hearing would be the Legislature’s second dealing with the MBTA. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee held one oversight hearing on the MBTA in July and said it planned to hold at least one more following the release of the FTA report.