Lawmakers plan T safety hearings, call for $400m in extra aid

Say FTA concerns, T response ‘don’t inspire any public confidence’

LEGISLATIVE LEADERS jumped into the fray over MBTA safety on Tuesday, announcing plans to hold oversight hearings on the transit authority in the coming weeks and to pass legislation appropriating $400 million in bond funds to help the T address concerns raised by the Federal Transit Administration.

In a joint statement, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka were unusually blunt in addressing safety concerns raised by the FTA and the T’s decision to address one of those concerns – about understaffing in the subway operations control center – by scaling back service on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines.

“The FTA’s findings and the MBTA’s subsequent service cuts don’t inspire any public confidence in our transit system,” the two leaders said. “Since 2015, at his request, Gov. [Charlie] Baker has had control of the MBTA. It has since been the administration’s responsibility to keep up with maintenance and manage an efficient system that customers can rely on. Given the FTA’s interim findings and alarming directives, there is an increased need to better understand the agency’s shortcomings and help restore public confidence.”

The FTA issued five directives last week addressing immediate safety concerns at the MBTA and plans to issue a final report in August. While some of the directives can be addressed relatively easily, others may require significant investments in staff and equipment.

Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which will conduct the oversight hearings, said the $400 million figure is a placeholder that could be revised upward or downward depending on what the hearings reveal.

Transit advocate James Aloisi said money won’t solve all the problems at the T, but last week he called on the Legislature to step up with additional funding to remove any financial hurdles to implementing new safety procedures.

Baker issued no statements Tuesday on the state of the MBTA and neither the MBTA’s general manager nor the T’s board of directors made any comment.

Straus said the oversight hearings will attempt to find out why safety issues have not been prioritized by the T. He also said he was not in favor of the T’s decision to revert to a Saturday schedule on the Red, Orange, and Blue subway lines during the week to bring staffing in the operations control center in line with service levels. “Service cuts are not anyone’s preference,” he said. “The real answer is staffing up.”

Straus also indicated the oversight hearings will focus more on the governor’s oversight of the MBTA and less on General Manager Steve Poftak’s management.  “He operates within an administration and I don’t think the GM is the person entirely in control at the T,” he said. “You can’t blame him for everything.”

Spilka, in remarks to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, did not stray from the joint statement with Mariano when talking about safety at the T. But she renewed a push for new, reduced fares for low-income riders or possibly elimination of fares for riders of the regional transit authorities as well as the MBTA.

Spilka said the Senate’s budget proposal included $2.5 million for the regional transit authorities to explore means-tested, discounted, or fare-free pilot programs.

“Although I am disappointed the governor vetoed the Senate’s attempt to move forward on a low-income fare program at the T and the commuter rail last session, I am looking forward to continuing that conversation with my colleagues in the upcoming transportation bond bill currently moving through the Legislature,” Spilka said in her speech.