Poftak confirms FTA safety investigation at MBTA
T didn't disclose investigation until letter leaked to Globe
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
FEDERAL TRANSIT officials will meet with T leaders this week to kick off a safety investigation into the agency, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Tuesday, amid heightened scrutiny following a series of high-profile and sometimes fatal incidents.
A day after the Boston Globe reported that the Federal Transit Administration sent officials a letter describing itself as “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” at the MBTA, Poftak said he and his team welcome additional federal oversight and emphasized that he believes the network of trains, buses and ferries around greater Boston is safe for riders.
While Poftak said it is not “unprecedented” for the FTA to expand its safety oversight role, he could not identify a previous instance in which the federal agency pursued such a “formalized process.”
The Globe reported Monday that FTA Associate Administrator for Transit Safety and Oversight Joe DeLorenzo wrote to Massachusetts officials in mid-April outlining concerns with a “pattern of safety incidents,” including the April 10 death of Robinson Lalin after he became trapped in a Red Line train door.
FTA officials now plan to take on an “increased safety oversight role” at the T, according to the Globe.
“It will begin this week with a series of meetings,” Poftak said Tuesday.
An FTA spokesperson on Tuesday confirmed the agency is conducting a “safety management inspection” of the T, saying it would help the MBTA assess the strengths and weaknesses of its safety systems and identify areas where the agency can further reduce risks and make other safety improvements.”
“As part of that effort FTA also will closely inspect the efforts of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (MDPU) in its oversight of the MBTA to discover any systemic exposures that create, or fail to address, risk in the MBTA system,” the spokesperson said. “Results of the inspection will determine what next steps are taken by FTA.”
The increase in federal scrutiny on the T’s safety comes two and a half years after an independent panel of experts concluded that a combination of lapses in maintenance and inspections, cost-cutting, and leadership failures contributed to a “questionable” approach to safety.
T officials said in February they had implemented two-thirds of the review panel’s recommendations and that some remaining reforms are on hold partly due to the pandemic’s impact on the agency.
“It’s not a question of resources, so having subject matter experts come in and take a look at the system — if they identify gaps, we will solve those gaps, we will mitigate those problems,” Poftak said.
“The MBTA is safe,” he later added. “We are working every day to make it safer. I take the MBTA every day. My family takes it. The MBTA is safe.”
Another federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, is already involved with the MBTA amid an investigation into last month’s fatal Red Line incident. NTSB investigators said in a preliminary report last week that they found a “fault in a local door control system that enabled the train to move with the door obstructed” after Lalin became trapped.
“Obviously, the Red Line incident was a tragic incident and we offer our condolences to the family,” Poftak said. “We’ve identified the problem. The problem was an anomaly, it was not in any other vehicle. We have put a mitigation in place so that problem can never happen again. We’ve also changed our inspection protocols, so we can’t rule out everything, but we are doing a tremendous amount of work.”
The Globe’s report on Monday was the first public mention of the FTA’s mid-April letter or its plans to intervene.
“We weren’t really thinking about it from a public relations strategy,” Poftak said Tuesday when asked why officials did not disclose the development. “We had already begun internally to address the findings in the letter. This board talks about safety more than any other board and it would have been presented in the normal course of business.”
While officials tout their increased investment in safety, the MBTA faces operating budget pressures exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on ridership. The agency’s leaders expect to face a budget gap of hundreds of millions of dollars as soon as next year.
The House’s fiscal year 2023 budget bill, the counterproposal the Senate Ways and Means Committee rolled out Tuesday and Gov. Charlie Baker’s original budget proposal all call for steering $187 million in operating assistance to the MBTA, $60 million more than the typical annual transfer made in recent years. The T also receives a fixed portion of the state’s annual sales tax revenue, budgeted at $1.17 billion in fiscal year 2022.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said his chamber’s spending bill would not specify how the additional funding should be spent and would instead let MBTA overseers determine how to use the boost.“We want to give them the resources necessary to make capital improvements, to make safety improvements, and also as I said with MassDOT, to staff up to ensure that we maximize the amount of federal money that we get into our transportation system,” Rodrigues said during a budget briefing.
Katie Lannan contributed to this story.