Lawmakers question whether DPU is right for MBTA safety oversight

Agency officials blame most problems on difficulties in hiring

TWO KEY Beacon Hill lawmakers on Thursday questioned whether the Department of Public Utilities is the right agency to hold the MBTA’s feet to the fire on safety issues.

At a legislative oversight hearing, the chair of the DPU and the head of the agency’s transportation oversight division acknowledged the arm of the agency that oversees the MBTA’s safety efforts is understaffed and has been understaffed for years.

The DPU, an agency known mostly for overseeing electric and gas utilities, is currently trying to double the size of the transportation division to roughly 14 people, and may need more employees. The Federal Transit Administration, in a recent safety inspection report, criticized the MBTA and the DPU’s transportation division.

“The division seems stuck,” said Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington. “Safety seems to have been submerged, seriously, within the DPU.”

But Matt Nelson, the chair, and Elizabeth Cellucci, the division chief, said the problem is not lack of effort to hire more people but the nichey nature of the jobs and the lack of an employee feeder system. Cellucci, in fact, said the DPU acts as a feeder to the MBTA; Keolis Commuter Services, the operator of the T’s commuter rail system; and other agencies around the country.

Nelson said all the speculation about moving the division out of the DPU has hurt recruitment efforts because job candidates are uncertain what’s going to happen to the agency.

Cellucci said most employees arrive at the transportation division with very little background in the subject matter and need to be trained. She said all of the current employees in the division have been there less than two years. She came in late 2020.

Although Nelson grumbled that other employers, including the MBTA, outbid the DPU for employees, he said the problem in hiring is not money-related.

“We have the money,” he said, noting that the agency received $7.8 million in federal grant funds in late 2020 but so far has spent only $2.7 million.

Cellucci also said the staffing problem won’t go away by moving the division out of the DPU. Not only would a move require the establishment of a new support system (with human resources, information technology, and legal), but the hiring challenge won’t disappear, she said.

“No matter where this agency ends up, whether it’s the DPU or elsewhere, you’re still going to have this issue,” Cellucci said.

Barrett and the co-chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, worried that the DPU’s increased focus on MBTA safety issues will distract from other agency priorities centering around energy and climate change. The senator said moving the division out of the DPU would elevate MBTA safety as a priority and leave the DPU to focus on climate change and energy.

Witnesses at the hearing raised several possible solutions to elevate MBTA safety efforts at the agency, including adding a fourth DPU commissioner with safety expertise, leaving the division where it is but creating a new policy board to oversee it, moving it into the Department of Transportation, and making it a stand-alone agency.

In its safety inspection report, the Federal Transit Administration was highly critical of both the MBTA and the DPU. The federal agency directed the DPU to conduct a review to determine whether it has enough independence from the governor, who has oversight over both agencies.

Nelson said the agency has recommended to the FTA a largely internal review of its independence, complete with a consult with the governor’s office. Barrett indicated he did not think that was a very serious effort.

Ann Berwick, who chaired the DPU from 2010 to 2015, said she thinks oversight of the T needs to move elsewhere. She said the employee numbers tell it all, with only 7 of 185 employees at the DPI in the transportation oversight division.

“I handled it inadequately because my focus and the preponderance of my staff was focused on gas and electric utilities,” Berwick said of her tenure at the agency.

“Could it be different? Perhaps, but I don’t foresee that happening,” she said. “I think transit safety will always be a stepchild of the DPU.”