LaHood: T’s Poftak on right track with safety until COVID hit

Former US transportation secretary makes safety culture recommendations

A correction has been made to this story.

STEVE POFTAK, the MBTA’s beleaguered general manager, received some praise on Tuesday from former US transportation secretary Ray LaHood and Sen. Brendan Crighton, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

LaHood headed a panel that releases a report in December 2019 that was highly critical of the safety culture at the MBTA. Many of that report’s findings and recommendations mirrored those in a Federal Transit Administration report released at the end of August, raising questions about what the T had been doing to address the problems in the period between the two reports.

LaHood said he worked closely with Poftak during the preparation of the first report and was confident he would be the leader who would carry out the recommendations of the safety panel.

“Unfortunately, COVID hit,” LaHood said. “I believe, right up to the point of COVID, he was doing a good job. He was carrying out the recommendations. He was trying to implement the safety culture that I’ve talked about. Then COVID put an end to all of that.”

LaHood’s assessment of Poftak is far different from the one put forth by US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey at a recent hearing in Boston on the MBTA. The two senators belittled Poftak’s handling of safety issues at the agency; Warren called for a top-to-bottom change in management at the T.

LaHood acknowledged affixing blame is commonplace in these situations. “There’s plenty of blame to go around,” he said. “We know that from reading the report. I do believe that if COVID hadn’t hit, the FTA report would look a lot different. They were making progress. They really were.”

LaHood made his remarks at an oversight hearing of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Sen. Crighton of Lynn, one of the co-chairs of the committee, said on the CommonWealth Codcast recently that he was disturbed by the lack of progress on safety issues at the MBTA since the LaHood panel’s report. The House chair, Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, called for new leadership at the MBTA. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story said Sen. Crighton also called for new leadership at the T. He didn’t go that far, saying he was focused on working with existing leadership through the end of the year.)

But after LaHood’s comments on Tuesday, Crighton said he agreed with the former transportation secretary’s assessment of Poftak. Crighton said MBTA officials need to be held accountable, but praised Poftak’s commitment to safety and his efforts to right the ship.

 “I don’t know that there’s a harder job in state government,” he said.

LaHood’s primary focus at the oversight hearing was four recommendations for improving the safety culture at the MBTA.

He suggested the transit authority first combine all the recommendations in the 2019 safety report he helped write and the Federal Transit Administration’s August safety report; extend their reach to commuter rail, bus, and ferry service; and develop a series of safety benchmarks the transit authority would need to meet.

LaHood said the T’s chief safety officer should create a budget plan for meeting the benchmarks and an independent safety management office should be established to hold monthly hearings assessing progress.

LaHood the MBTA safety oversight office, currently located within the Department of Public Utilities, should be moved elsewhere. He left the decision on where to the lawmakers, but said the move needs to be done. “If you do nothing else, you need to do that,” he said. “You have to have transparency.”

Asked if he had any recommendations for the composition of an MBTA oversight board, LaHood recommended no local community officials be included. He said local officials are only interested in their communities and not the broader goals of the transit agency.  “You need a board that cares about the total system,” he said.

Although LaHood praised Poftak and Gov. Charlie Baker, he said the current safety culture at the MBTA is broken. He said new leadership needs to be brought in to change the culture of the agency to promote safety first.

“Unless that culture exists, no matter how much money you put in there are going to be problems,” he said. “This is an opportune time for you all. You are going to have a new administration and there will be opportunities to make the changes that need to be made.”