When snowstorms ground the MBTA to a halt at the beginning of 2015, Governor Charlie Baker rolled up his sleeves and aimed to fix the broken system. He publicly assumed responsibility for the agency and appointed members to a new oversight board. The T spent millions on new heating equipment, plows, track, and more.
“People are going to judge me by whether or not the T works this winter,” he said as the next one loomed.
Seven years later, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is again in crisis. An ongoing, nearly unprecedented safety inspection by the Federal Transit Administration spurred by a series of safety incidents, including the April dragging death of a subway passenger, has exposed glaring, endemic failures under his watch.
Yet this time, with less than seven months left as governor, Baker so far seems to be holding the MBTA mess at arm’s length.
He didn’t shy away from talking about the MBTA’s troubles when asked Monday, at an unrelated event, saying he is “concerned about the recent challenges.” But asked whether he knew about serious safety failures at the agency before federal regulators intervened, Baker didn’t give a definitive answer.
He hasn’t held a news conference to say he’s taking charge; hasn’t made any “buck stops with me” declaration; and hasn’t proposed sweeping accountability measures or major new investment — at least not yet.
But the governor hinted that may soon change in the form of a push for more funding for the MBTA’s day-to-day expenses, calling the agency’s operating budget its “biggest issue.”
“The biggest thing I’m worried about on the financial side of the T is the impact that the fall in ridership has had on their operating budget,” he said. “You’ll see us file something between now and the end of the year to support their operating budget going forward.”
Baker and his aides say he has been in constant communication with leaders of the MBTA.
“I spent a long time talking to the folks at the T since the FTA got here,” he said. “And I think the FTA is doing exactly what they said they would do, and the T responding accordingly. I think that’s all good.”
The governor’s apparent support for increasing the T’s operating budget, which could face a $236 million gap come summer 2023, is a step in the right direction, said former state secretary of transportation Jim Aloisi.
“Recognizing that the T’s underlying problem right now is the operating budget issue is the best thing the governor can do,” Aloisi said. “Better late than never.”
Up until this point in the current troubles, Baker isn’t known to have made any in-person appearances related to the safety crisis at T headquarters or spoken to rank-and-file staff, a shift from his handling of the snow shutdowns.
Brian Kane, who was the director of operations analysis at the MBTA, remembers that after the 2015 snowstorms, Baker showed up at the operations control center during his overnight shift there.
Now executive director of the MBTA advisory board, Kane said he was surprised to see the state’s chief executive after hours. He greeted Baker as “your excellency,” to which Baker responded: “More like your mediocrity.”
Kane said Baker can’t be blamed for the T’s current crisis and applauded his acknowledgement of the need for more operations funding.
“They took their shot, I give him a lot of credit,” Kane said. “He’s been the most hands-on governor in terms of the T that I’ve seen. Maybe he didn’t pick the right approach, but he took an approach.”
Judging by the T’s persistent safety issues, Baker’s approach has not managed to fix the culture at the agency. FTA inspectors said they found MBTA dispatchers sometimes working 20-hour days to make up for staffing shortages, workers with lapsed safety certifications, several recent runaway train incidents, and large swaths of track in disrepair.
Asked if the problems were previously on his radar, Baker said the lapsed certifications have largely been taken care of and touted his administration’s role in creating an asset management system at the T that informs the agency about the condition of its track.
“These other issues are ones that we’ll be talking to the T about going forward,” he said.
In its directive this month, the FTA said the T still struggles to stay on top of what aging equipment needs repair.
According to the FTA, the T is still transitioning from a paper-based record-keeping system to a digital one. The agency said it has switched all safety-critical infrastructure to the digital database, but is still working on transitioning other infrastructure, like station doors.
“The MBTA has not adequately resourced this transition; as a result, the agency does not have access to quality data regarding the state of its infrastructure to support safety decision making, maintenance planning, and selection of capital projects,” the FTA directive said.
The FTA began its inspection at the MBTA in mid-April after 39-year-old Robinson Lalin was dragged to death at Broadway Station when his arm got stuck in a Red Line train door. The tragedy is just one of several recent safety issues. The federal agency expects to finish its final report in August, but earlier this month ordered the T to immediately address four serious safety failures.
Baker blamed the T’s staffing woes at its operations control center on the tight labor market, citing similar problems facing airlines. Since the FTA pointed out the shortage of dispatchers, the T has reduced service on the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines while it tries to lure more dispatchers with $10,000 bonuses.
“There’s a lot of this going on around the economy, both in Massachusetts, around the country, and frankly, around the world,” Baker said. “Do I think the T needs to deal with these and fix it? Yeah, I do. Are we going to do whatever we can to help them? Of course.”
Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group, said she’d like to see the governor bring in people with more transit safety expertise to the agency’s oversight board, which has faced criticism for being too hands-off.
“He didn’t in 2015 blame the weather, he said the weather illuminated a longstanding problem I’m going to fix,” she said. “Now he’s blaming the pandemic [for staffing shortages]. If he cared about this transit system, he would be rolling up his sleeves and doing everything he could to fix the problem before the next governor comes in.”