Straus asks whether the T is still needed

Suggests the agency could be rolled into MassDOT

AT THE END of Monday’s legislative oversight hearing on safety practices at the MBTA, the House chair of the Transportation Committee said something was missing.

The committee, in its questioning of MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler, discussed the adequacy of funding, the safety culture of the transit authority, staffing difficulties, press strategy, and preventive maintenance.

But Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett wasn’t satisfied he had figured out what was causing safety problems at the T and what should be done about it. “There is still a missing ingredient,” Straus said.

In his introductory remarks, Straus encouraged his fellow lawmakers and the public to cast a wider net for answers and go beyond budget tweaking and hiring fixes. “Something deeper has been occurring and we have to find that out,” he said.

The lawmaker suggested the answer may be to do away with the MBTA. “Why do we even have the T?” he asked. “Why don’t we have an overall transportation system?”

Straus said the state used to have a Turnpike Authority, which built and then operated the Massachusetts Turnpike. Twelve years ago, he said, the state did away with the authority because it no longer contributed to the smooth functioning of the overall transportation system.

“It may be we’re at a similar point with the MBTA,” he said, noting that Massachusetts residents don’t pay attention to bureaucratic distinctions between bureaucracies when they drive to a commuter rail station, take the train into Boston, and then board a subway or a bus to reach their final destination. They see it as one system, he said.

Straus said it may make sense to convert the MBTA into an operating agency and leave the capital development effort to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Here are some of the other areas that received attention during the MBTA safety oversight hearing:

Budget needs: The Legislature has designated $400 million in a bond bill for the MBTA to address issues raised by the Federal Transit Administration’s safety investigation and a budget proposal moving through the Legislature on Monday set aside $266 million.

Poftak said the T estimates it will need $300 million to address the issues raised in a series of interim directives from the Federal Transit Administration. Poftak said the FTA’s final report, due in August, will require more work be done, which will require additional expenditures.

“I think there will be additional costs, and I think they’ll be significant,” he said.

Inadequate staff: A recurring theme from Poftak was the MBTA’s difficulty in hiring new workers. He said the T boosted its overall staff by 100 workers last year and hopes to increase that number this year.

To do so, however, the T has to hire a lot of new employees because so many leave each year. Last year, Poftak said, the T added 800 employees but lost about 700, leaving the agency a net positive of 100.

Poftak said the T hopes to hire 2,000 new workers this fiscal year. The transit authority currently has 6,400 employees with 800 open positions, he said.

Safety culture problems: A 2019 safety report issued by a special panel retained by the MBTA’s previous oversight board raised alarm bells about an inadequate safety culture brought about by an environment of blame and retaliation.

Poftak said the effort to change the culture started after the 2019 report’s release and is still not finished. “It’s a big battleship to turn around,” he said.

The general manager said some of the steps the T has taken to promote a greater emphasis on safety include online, anonymous meetings where employees can voice concerns without fear of retaliation, an anonymous safety hotline, and a quarterly newsletter with a feature that applauds workers who identify safety issues. Poftak said he personally attends orientations for new employees to emphasize the importance of safety.

Sen. John Keenan of Quincy said he was glad to hear of all the initiatives but noted that many of them are centered around participants remaining anonymous. “The culture will have changed when that’s no longer needed,” he said.