Lawmakers planning RMV oversight hearing this month

One of several probes focused on Baker transportation agencies

STATE LAWMAKERS WILL CONDUCT an oversight hearing later this month to look into problems at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where administrative lapses delayed license suspensions for nearly 900 people.

“Many senators from my chamber have come wanting more information. The chairs have spoken and they’ve made the decision to have this oversight hearing this month, just to gather some more information,” Senate President Karen Spilka said on Monday after a meeting at the State House with the governor and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The Legislature’s Transportation Committee, led by Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett and Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, plans to hold a hearing in July, but few other details were available Monday.

The problems at the RMV, which Gov. Charlie Baker called “a fail,” are not the only part of his administration’s transportation department under scrutiny.

A panel assembled by the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is already scrutinizing derailments at the MBTA and the Boston Globe on Sunday evening reported that the T’s chief safety officer of nearly eight years, Ron Nickle, had been fired after raising the alarm to federal regulators that his efforts to enforce safety regulations were being undermined.

The governor on Monday stood by the MBTA.  “It’s complicated to talk about personnel issues, but I will say this: I was briefed by the T on this decision and based on that, I support the decision they made to terminate him,” Baker said Monday after an event in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Baker declined to respond to the allegations Nickle raised about safety on the transit system, anticipating legal action on the matter. But he rejected the idea that safety issues were ever sidelined at the T.

“This is priority number one for the T. Always has been. Always will be,” Baker said.

On the morning of Thursday, March 21, Nickle met with the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad administration, and the state Department of Public Utilities and “highlighted critical safety issues and discussed corrective actions to be taken,” according to his attorney, Charlie Goetsch, who wrote in a blog that the next morning the T called him in and “abruptly terminated him, giving no reason other than a desire ‘to move in a different direction.’”

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent workers’ rights lawyer who is mounting a Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey, called for a congressional investigation into Nickle’s cover-up accusations and other issues at the T.

“Enough is enough,” Liss-Riordan said in a statement. “Congress should immediately hold hearings to investigate whether the Baker administration engaged in a coverup to keep safety concerns out of the public view, as well as the general management failures and safety practices at the MBTA.”

While the RMV problems will be the subject of a July hearing, Spilka and DeLeo were less clear about whether there should be any state legislative oversight of the MBTA following the allegations raised in the Globe.

“Information is still coming out,” said Spilka. “There will be some sort of investigation process,” she said, referring to reports of a federal investigation. The FTA declined to confirm or deny whether it had even received a report from the former safety chief, but said the agency evaluated information it receives about safety issues and investigates when deemed appropriate.

If Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack testifies at the RMV oversight hearing, lawmakers could have the chance to ask her about other issues as well. The Globe reported Nickle filed a 97-page complaint.

The safety lapses at the RMV, meanwhile, were uncovered and disclosed by the Baker administration.

A fiery crash in New Hampshire that killed seven motorcyclists brought to light a major administrative oversight at the agency responsible for licensing drivers, which for more than a year had let notices about violations in other states pile-up unaddressed. On Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced that the RMV had processed all the license suspensions required by the previously neglected notices that accumulated at the Quincy headquarters, issuing 940 suspensions to 746 individual drivers. The registry said it also pulled files from its archives in Concord and issued another 168 suspensions for 130 drivers, meaning more than 1,000 licenses for 876 drivers have been suspended since discovery of the oversight. The administration also hired the law firm Grant Thornton to audit the process.

Bruce Tarr, the Republican leader of the Senate, said that outside reviews of both the RMV and the MBTA would be worthwhile, and he said the problems at the registry – where paper mail sat unaddressed dating back to March 2018 – exposed a “national deficiency” in the various systems states use to share information about driving infractions.

“We have states that are collecting and distributing and exchanging information in different ways, while at the same time there is a national database for that very purpose that is not being able to be used effectively,” said Tarr. “It seems to me more than disappointing that we don’t have a federal system that can be accessed in an efficient manner so that we don’t have to resort to paper in bins being checked.”

The allegations revealed by the Globe became a political football as Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, pounced on the story, and the MBTA said it strayed far from the truth.

“This latest scandal at the MBTA suggests that the Baker administration knew about serious safety concerns and engaged in a cover-up to hide these issues from public view,” Bickford said. “Instead of taking steps to actually correct the problems identified by one of the top MBTA officials, the Baker administration used intimidation tactics to silence the employee from speaking out.”

The MBTA issued a statement saying “the former employee’s statement is replete with mischaracterizations and falsehoods.” Nevertheless, the agency said, it will review the former employee’s unsubstantiated claims with its regulatory partners.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the board has “extensive information” about the fired T safety chief, and a panel already tasked with reviewing safety issues following the Red Line derailment has been asked to look into Nickle’s allegations as well.

“We are asking our safety review panel to look at the matter independently, and when they take a peek at that, we’ll have a further view,” Aiello said during an impromptu interview outside the State House. The panel includes Ray LaHood, who was former president Barack Obama’s transportation secretary, along with other former transit executives.

Aiello said that the T has also narrowed the focus of its investigation into what caused the June 11 Red Line derailment to the car’s truck system – which includes the wheels, axle, and other elements – as a suspected major factor in the derailment of the 50-year-old car on June 11.

“We have isolated the element of the car that we think may have contributed to it,” Aiello said, noting that the parts have been shipped out for forensic analysis.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

The June 11 derailment had a negative impact on ridership of the T’s busiest subway line, and even one week later Ride Line ridership was down 5.9 percent compared to 2018 levels. The derailed train knocked out signal systems leading to delays expected to last through the summer. Baker said that’s one reason why T workers are trying to get the system back in order as quickly as possible.

“The numbers always come down a little bit in the summer, but there’s clearly been a decline as a result of the derailment. And my guess is for some people for whom the commuter rail is a viable option, they’re using the commuter rail. For other people, they may be pursuing other paths to get to where they need to go. The folks at the T are working as hard as they possibly can to deal with the damage that was done by that collision, and hopefully we’ll have a lot more to say about that by Labor Day, which is the goal we’ve been working on,” Baker said. “But on some level, I understand people’s frustration and their desire to find a different way to get to where they need to go, and it’s incumbent on the T and the rest of us to figure out how to get that thing fixed as quickly as we can and to continue to invest in the core system.”