Warren calls for new leadership ‘top to bottom’ at T

Along with Markey, calls current management, oversight a failure

SENS. ELIZABETH WARREN called for “new leadership from top to bottom” at the MBTA at a hearing in Boston on Friday where she and Sen. Ed Markey grilled MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak about safety problems, communication glitches, and poor management at the transit authority.

The federal oversight hearing didn’t break new ground in terms of safety issues or ways to address them, but the two senators bluntly told Poftak and Matthew Nelson, the chair of the Department of Public Utilities, that they were failing MBTA riders.

Warren was particularly biting, drawing on an August 31 safety report on the T by the Federal Transit Administration to highlight what she and Markey called the “shocking” shortcomings of the agency.

Warren summarized a section of the FTA report that said management at the MBTA does not ensure that its decisions regarding safety risks at the agency are based on safety data and documented facts. “That was the bureaucratic way to say that your safety decisions are just made up,” she said. “Mr. Poftak, what led the FTA to make such a strong statement about your safety decisions and your leadership?”

Ever since an outside panel was brought in by the Fiscal and Management Control Board in 2019 to explore safety issues at the T, Poftrak said the agency has been beefing up its safety efforts. He said the agency is currently building a risk management system and trying to gather safety data that would allow the agency to be more forward-looking and less reactive in dealing with safety concerns. Poftak said progress has been made, but much more needs to be done.

Warren asked why Poftak, who became general manager in January 2019, has moved so slowly in addressing MBTA safety issues that were first raised the year he took his job. She noted the recent FTA report identified 53 action items the MBTA must address to improve safety, which she described as a “staggeringly long” list.

How many of those action items have been addressed, she asked Poftak.

Poftak said he didn’t know off the top of his head, pointing out that many of the action items are not quick fixes and could take years to address.

Warren pointed out that one of the action items calls for moving dangerous chemicals to safer locations, which she said could be handled with a quick fix. How many of the action item are completed, she asked Poftak again.

“We’re still working that out with the FTA,” he said. “It truly varies from corrective action plan to corrective action plan. We will get some done right away. Some will be multiple years in execution.”

Warren adopted a similar aggressive approach with Nelson, who also stepped into his job as chair of the DPU in January 2019. The DPU has a transportation oversight division that is charged by the FTA with making sure safety protocols are adhered to at the MBTA. That division was the target of an FTA audit raising concerns in 2019 and again in August.

Warren asked Nelson when he began to understand the extent of the safety issues at the MBTA. Nelson responded that the first audit in 2019 didn’t reach its final form until December 2020. The senator noted it’s been almost two years since that first audit, yet the FTA is still saying the DPU is not doing its job.

What were you doing over the last two years, Warren asked.

“That’s a fair question,” Nelson said.

“Good,” Warren responded.

Nelson said the agency needs to add more employees overseeing the MBTA. He said the division overseeing the T currently has 11 employees, up slightly from when the FTA’s August report came out.

Warren strongly suggested the agency failed to act sooner and, according to the FTA report, is still continuing to come up short.

“What we’re hearing is staggering,” Markey said. “I agree with Sen. Warren. The DPU has not been a watchdog. The DPU has become a regulatory black hole into which all of the safety issues fall.”

Markey criticized Poftak for failing to be straight with the MBTA’s riders. He said Poftak repeatedly promised before and during the one-month shutdown of the Orange Line that repairs would be accomplished that would speed up service.

Instead, according to data from the transportation advocacy group TransitMatters, a trip on the Orange Line from Markey’s hometown of Malden to Haymarket that took 13 minutes prior to the shutdown is now taking 21 minutes, a 60 percent increase in travel time.

Markey asked: Is the Orange Line faster today?

“I think you’ve empirically demonstrated that it is not,” said Poftak.

The general manager said all the work he promised would be done during the shutdown was completed, including work on six slow zones, areas that are defined as sections of deficient track that require a train to travel at a speed of 10 miles per hour.

During the shutdown, Poftak said, the agency’s engineers decided they also wanted to start other track repairs before winter. He said that repair work is still ongoing at night after the system is shutdown, and it has required Orange Line trains to move more slowly throughout the day.

Poftak said he takes personal responsibility for failing to comprehend and then communicate the impact on speed times of the additional work, particularly in the area between North Station and Assembly Square. “

Markey said Poftak should have told customers what was happening. “People in Malden would have understood that,” he said.

“Clearly the message did not get out in a way that was digestible to customers,” Poftak said.

Markey wanted to know when the Orange Line will move at faster speeds than it did prior to the shutdown.

Nuria Fernandes, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, shakes hands with MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak after delivering her testimony at a congressional oversight hearing in Boston. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Poftak said he could not give a specific date. “It is my duty and my responsibility as a leader of this organization to prioritize safety and if I put a date in place it doesn’t prioritize safety. It puts pressure on field staff to make a decision that is not based on what is the safety condition in the field.”

Poftak did promise that in the future the T would publicly release average travel times on subway routes and disclose progress on projects needed to reduce travel times.

Three other witnesses appeared at the hearing – Nuria Fernandez, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration; Boston Mayor Michelle Wu; and Jarred Johnson, the COO of TransitMatters.

Fernandez said little, in most cases merely affirming characterizations of the FTA report put forward by the two senators.

She said the FTA decided to launch its safety investigation of the MBTA – the second in the agency’s history — because of higher than normal rates of collisions, derailments, injuries, and deaths.

According to Warren, there were 13 rail to rail collisions between 2017 and 2021, resulting in 48 injuries. The MBTA was responsible for more than a third of the collisions and 90 percent of the injuries.

Fernandez said the MBTA’s safety hotline received 20 to 25 calls a month. “It did signal there may be some reluctance or skepticism towards the safety reporting environment and what is being done with the information that is being provided,” she said.

She and Poftak both said the T is safe to ride, but it could be safer.

Wu said all of the safety incidents at the T have put doubts in the minds of riders about how long trips will take and whether they will make it to their destinations.

Wu blamed many of the problems at the T on decades of disinvestment, inadequate funding, and the failure to articulate a clear vision for the agency. “The result is a system consistently on the edge of collapse,” she said.

Wu was critical of the T, but not of Poftak, who she said “has one of the most difficult jobs on the planet.”

The latter part of the hearing shifted to a popular subject – what new expansions, service improvements, and projects to take on at the T – but one that may raise red flags with the FTA.

Everyone acknowledges capital investments are necessary at the T, but the FTA in its report said the T was too preoccupied with capital projects at the expense of routine maintenance and repairs. The federal agency also raised concerns about the MBTA’s bandwidth to take on so many priorities at once.

Warren invited Wu and Johnson to give their wish list for the T.

Wu said she wanted to lower fares on the commuter rail system, expand the use of fare free buses, and give Boston and perhaps other local communities seats on the MBTA board.

Johnson said he favored moving toward 24-hour service: simplifying and lowering fares, particularly on commuter rail; and connecting the Red and Blue lines

Johnson said electrification of the bus and commuter rail systems is a high priority because it will improve speeds and lower repair time and help the state meet its emission reduction targets. Johnson said bus electrification is currently moving forward slowly at the T, while electrification of the commuter rail system is proceeding much more slowly.

Johnson estimated electrification of the commuter rail system could cost as much as $5 billion, not including new electric trains. (The MBTA in July raised the possibility of building a hybrid electric commuter rail system that runs off of overhead wires most of the time but in some areas off of batteries.)

Warren enthusiastically embraced electrification of the transit system. “Frankly, the costs are too high if we don’t do it,” Warren said.