Pitch to Dismantle T Called ‘an Attempt to Distract’ from Problems

Two leading transit advocates are criticizing a leading lawmaker’s suggestion that the MBTA be folded into the Massachusetts Department of Transportation as a way to solve its persistent safety problems.

The MBTA was already facing a nearly unprecedented federal investigation over safety failures and a legislative oversight hearing before an Orange Line train burst into flames last week and a Red Line train with faulty brakes on Monday rolled out of the rail yard and hundreds of feet up the track.

With those latest incidents in mind, Rep. William Straus, who is helping to lead the legislature’s probe into the beleaguered agency, said Tuesday he believes the state has reached a tipping point.

“I don’t think we have any choice,” Straus told WBUR’s Tiziana Dearing when asked if Massachusetts had crossed a Rubicon and could move quickly enough to implement drastic measures. “Even more chilling is, everyone who saw [the Orange Line fire] had to think: What if that was my son? What if that was my parent? This is an unfortunate situation. I don’t think we needed to be here because all the things that were identified years ago have sadly come true.”

“Here we are today and we have to do something dramatic,” Straus added.

Lawmakers are authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars for the MBTA to undertake the work to address safety faults the FTA identified. While budget-watchers warn the transit agency is on track to careen off a fiscal cliff next year, Straus – who raised eyebrows last week by suggesting it might be time to eliminate the MBTA as a standalone authority – said Tuesday he does not think a funding injection will solve all of the T’s problems.

“While it will take money, I think people have to understand it’s not a matter of just writing a check to the T and it will get better,” Straus told WBUR. “The taxpayers through the sales tax provide the T over $1 billion a year into its budget. Funds are there. It’s something else, which I called last week the missing ingredient within the T as an organization. My example I point to is we abolished the Turnpike Authority 10 years ago when it had really no purpose, and frankly, no one misses the Turnpike Authority today.”

A bit more than two years ago, Straus helped lead the charge in the House to generate new revenues for the state’s transportation sector with a package of tax and fee increases his branch approved. The measure died in the Senate and legislative leaders have shown little interest in reviving the debate since then.

Straus’s assessment drew nearly immediate criticism from LivableStreets Alliance Executive Director Stacy Thompson and TransitMatters Executive Director Jarred Johnson, who followed him as the next guests on WBUR moments later.

“I disagree with Rep. Straus about restructuring the MBTA,” Thompson said. “Obviously, we all want to have a good transit system, but it’s very much putting the cart before the horse, and frankly, I think it’s potentially an attempt to distract from the core issue, which is deep underinvestment in the system.”

Johnson noted that even if the MBTA was folded into the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, as Straus suggested, the tracks, trains and other physical components of Greater Boston’s mass transit system would still need to be brought up to a safe condition and maintained at that level going forward.