MBTA board chair indicates authority needs more funding

Says exact amount will depend on staff, maintenance needs

THE CHAIR of the MBTA board, apparently for the first time, indicated to lawmakers on Wednesday that the transit authority needs additional long-term funding to address safety and reliability issues.

Betsy Taylor didn’t make a formal request and didn’t float an actual number, but in an exchange with lawmakers conducting a second MBTA safety oversight hearing she outlined the scope of the looming financial problems and indicated additional long-term funding would be needed.

The two leaders of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee – Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett and Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn – expressed frustration with the Baker administration for not seeking more funds earlier.

Straus and Crighton said lawmakers have repeatedly asked the MBTA what it needs in terms of funding and been rebuffed.

“We’ve been told, ‘we’re all set, we have the money to get the job done.’ But the job has not gotten done,” said Crighton. “The fact that we have to continue to go to the administration to say what can we do shows there is a lack of urgency in addressing these needs.”

Taylor said she could not provide a specific dollar amount needed until two assessments are completed – one determining how many workers the T needs over the coming years and a second estimating how much money the T needs to bring its assets into a state of good repair. She downplayed any expansions of service, but said if any are pursued additional funding for them would be needed.

The T is already projecting a shortfall of between $240 million and $421 million in the operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 next year. Taylor said the actual size of the deficit will depend on ridership and whether empty job slots get filled quickly or slowly.

“Beyond that, the problem is likely to get worse,” she said, indicating deficits would steadily rise in out years with current revenue sources.

Taylor also defended her board’s decision to approve the transfer of $500 million from the T’s operating budget to the capital budget. That transfer was criticized by the Federal Transit Administration as an example of the T prioritizing long-term capital needs over operations and maintenance.

Taylor said a large portion of the $500 million went for safety and other high priority issues. She said $218 million went for systems to avert crashes on the Green Line and commuter rail systems; $145 million went for local funding matches for federal grants; and $20 million to boost the T’s hiring processes.

Lawmakers made few sweeping pronouncements at this second T oversight hearing, although Straus continued to suggest some sort of major reform is needed at the MBTA. He said the recent Federal Transit Administration safety report closely mirrored a safety report issued by a panel hired by the MBTA in 2019, suggesting very little progress over the intervening years.

“If we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to keep getting the same result,” he said.

Most of the hearing focused on shortages of workers at the MBTA and at the Department of Public Utilities, which has a transportation unit watchdogging the safety performance of the MBTA.

Matthew Nelson, the chair of the Department of Public Utilities, said his agency is trying to double the size of the division overseeing T safety efforts to help address concerns raised by the FTA in its report. (CommonWealth reported on the hiring effort on Tuesday.)

Matthew Nelson of the Department of Public Utilities.

Nelson came under fire from lawmakers for failing to address safety problems at the T earlier and for failing to alert the public to them. For years, the DPU’s transportation division has rarely said anything publicly about the T.

“We have a five-alarm fire here but you never rang the alarm,” Crighton said.

Nelson said the DPU’s job is not to issue press releases or sound alarms, but audit the safety operations of the T and hold the T accountable when the agency is not measuring up.

“The MBTA is still the first line of defense with regard to safety,” Nelson said.

The FTA is pressing the DPU to step up its game by hiring more staff and Nelson said he agreed with that approach. “Given the circumstances, more needs to be done,” he said. “They are challenging us to do more in an oversight role.”

The FTA has also questioned whether the DPU has enough independence within the Baker administration to play an oversight role with the MBTA. Nelson said he believes the agency is structured to provide that independence.

“We have a history of putting up firewalls in the department,” he said.

The legislative oversight committee heard testimony from two MBTA employees who raised concerns about the lack of manpower at the agency.

Jeb Mastandrea, a machinist and union representative, said he spends most of his day “putting out fires” at the T’s various facilities and has very little time to perform preventative maintenance. He said he is part of a team of 11 machinists – nine who work days and two who work nights.

“They just don’t have enough people to get everything done,” he said.

Toni Hobbs, a bus driver, said the shortage of employees has a ripple effect throughout the agency, often putting those who are working under greater pressure. Hobbs said bus trip times keep getting shortened, which puts more stress on drivers.

She had no problem with her supervisors, but said lawmakers and executives at the T should do more listening to front-line employees.

For example, she said, she is allowed 10 minutes for a safety check of her bus each morning before starting out on her route but she needs about 20 minutes to do the job properly.

Hobbs, who has worked at the T for 23 years, said she would not take the job today if she was just starting out. “I personally think we’re looked at as the little man when actually we’re the top. We are frontline.  Our boots are on the ground,” she said. “It’s us that are at the forefront. It’s us that are getting badgered. It’s us that are getting assaulted for things we have no control over. Is it a good working environment? Absolutely not, I wouldn’t take the job now.”