Oversight of potential safety risks at MBTA stations under question after BU professor dies in fall from staircase

Outside the MBTA’s Fenway Station, an aging three-story staircase rusts under a corrugated metal awning. In Alewife, it’s a deteriorating pedestrian bridge. At the Red Line’s Milton stop, stairs have sprouted cracks that expose rebar underneath, while years-old signs perpetually declare the steps closed.

The stations have more than just disrepair in common. They’re among dozens of state public spaces that straddle administrative borders of different state agencies, putting them in a bureaucratic vortex where oversight can be lax and ownership uncertain. Critics say this haphazard pattern has led to lapsed repairs, public safety risks, and political finger pointing.

Weeks after a Boston University professor fell to his death through a rusted, closed-off staircase at a Dorchester MBTA stop, state officials have still not explained why the structure sat crumbling for 20 months after it was closed. State agencies suggested others had oversight, and it took more than a week for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to acknowledge its central role.

RELATED: Suffolk DA, state officials continue probe into BU professor’s death on stairway at JFK/UMass MBTA station
Though the stairs lead to the JFK/UMass MBTA Station, next to land overseen by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, MassDOT said it inherited care and custody of the stairs from DCR in 2009. Yet, MassDOT’s own road inventory map — the version still in use weeks after the tragedy — labeled the area as DCR jurisdiction.

At least 33 other MBTA stations appear to operate in similar fashion, bordering state parklands or roads run by DCR, a Globe review of state maps found. About a third of those stations also are next to roads run by MassDOT. Transit advocates say these locations are more likely to show signs of disrepair.

In several cases, three or more competing authorities have some slice of the infrastructure, further obscuring responsibility for fixes or maintenance, critics say. Meanwhile these public spaces can languish, with long-term neglect yielding a safety risk.

“It’s these kinds of intersections, roads, and staircases where we still see really bad things happen,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance. She pointed to several other properties, including bridges over the Charles River that have shifted owners or maintenance over the years. “That is not a sustainable way to manage assets between agencies.”

The problem is not new. Twelve years ago, state lawmakers sought to fix the splintered and confusing transportation bureaucracy by merging agencies under the direction of a new Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Roads throughout Boston and the rest of the state had long been managed by an opaque patchwork of state and local agencies, including stewards such as the DCR, the state’s parks agency.

Consolidating agencies and moving roads under MassDOT was supposed to settle confusion over who was responsible for what roads, said Steven Baddour, a former state senator and assistant attorney general who helped write the 2009 law.

“We were hoping that question would never be asked again,” he said. “We hoped that as a result of this merger, it would be a seamless transportation management system.”

The law, he added, was written to make sure agencies also had flexibility in how to implement reforms and renovations. The murky circumstances around the staircase death shouldn’t necessarily be read as a failure of the legislation, he said.

The fact that MassDOT ultimately declared they were in charge of the structure “is a sign of responsibility,” he said. “That’s what we wanted to happen.”

The behind-the-scenes government wrangling was unknown to the countless commuters who traipsed up and down these stairs over the years. When the stairs at JFK/UMass began to fall apart, the MBTA closed off them in early 2020 on behalf of MassDOT as a partner agency, MassDOT spokeswoman Kristen Pennucci said. MBTA signage marked the top barrier, saying the stairs would be closed until that fall. At the bottom, generic signs and fencing blocked off the lower landing. The infrastructure continued to crumble, with few to no signs of repair.

Pennucci did not answer questions about who ultimately owned the staircase, or why MassDOT’s maps show DCR having jurisdiction over the road where the stairs were located if it has care and custody. But the map “was not intended to be an exhaustive inventory of all assets, bridges, and roadways,” she said.

She added that MassDOT regularly shares daily maintenance responsibilities like snow removal with other agencies including DCR, MBTA and hundreds of local Departments of Public Works “for operational efficiency.”

MassDOT demolished the stairs altogether Sept. 19 after the death of the BU professor, David Jones, Pennucci said.

DCR spokeswoman Carolyn Assa did not respond to requests for comment.

The Suffolk District Attorney’s office and State Police are investigating the circumstances around Jones’s death.

The confusion over who controls that stairway and other decrepit infrastructure has been an enduring worry to transit advocates, among them Brendan Kearney, deputy director of WalkBoston, who has studied the issue for years.

“From the outside, people just assume, ‘Oh, that’s the city of Boston. Why can’t Boston get this right?’” said Kearney. “But there are so many different people that have control of these different things and maintain or don’t maintain them.”

More than just repairs and safety are at stake, he added — knowing who is responsible for roadways and structures is also critical for accessibility and access, including with snow removal in the winter, he said.

Commuters and pedestrians have flagged several other properties where repairs appear to be perpetually on the back burner.

At Alewife, state maps show the station is bordered by MassDOT’s Alewife Station Access Road to the north and DCR’s Alewife Brook Parkway to the east. There, riders have complained about a run-down pedestrian footbridge crossing over Route 2, as well as long-running repairs to the garage to fix cracks in the concrete and persistent leaks.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency does not maintain the footbridge, though he ignored questions asking who the owner is. Pesaturo said the agency has awarded millions in contracts to repair and improve the parking garage.

At Fenway Station, where an outdoor staircase connects the T stop to DCR’s Park Drive a few stories up, Sam Solomon said he’s noticed rust along the metal staircase whenever he walks from his home in North Brookline to get to landmarks in the city. Pesaturo, the MBTA spokesman, said the agency owns those stairs and recently repaired the metal risers last month.

But Solomon said he still worries about whether the stairs are safe. “I’ll often take that staircase because it’s the fastest way to get down to street level,” he said. “When I read that horrible story, this immediately came to mind.”

At Milton Village, where the station is adjacent to DCR’s Neponset trail, stairs that connect to Adams Street above have been shut down for years, said Nicholas Armata.

“The stairs are a mess — the concrete is just spalling and cracking and chipping away, and it appears some of the rebar might be exposed as well,” said Armata, who works as a city planner for Boston. A nearby retention wall is also “crumbling apart,” he added.

Pesaturo said early engineering work is ongoing to make the station fully accessible and improve other parts of the Mattapan Trolley Line.

Signs have blocked off the stairs for years, Armata noted, and he has never seen any repairs.