State transportation leaders confident in MBTA leader Steve Poftak amid federal safety review

Despite a series of safety incidents and a nearly unprecedented federal review of safety at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, state and local elected officials and transit advocates say they remain supportive of the MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, to lead the agency.

Governor Charlie Baker, Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler, MBTA board of directors chairwoman Betsy Taylor, MBTA advisory board chairman and Mayor Tom Koch of Quincy, Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston, House leader of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee William Straus, and transit advocates said they still have faith in Poftak, or at least think the T’s safety issues are not solely his fault.

The vows of confidence are a boost for the longest-serving general manager since Daniel Grabauskas left in 2009. Poftak’s time on the T, his willingness to listen to outspoken critics, and his steadiness during the pandemic have been his biggest strengths, most said.

Transit advocates, including Wu, who campaigned on making the T more accessible and reliable, argue the T’s safety problems will take more investment from the state to resolve and can’t be attributed to Poftak alone.

“The recent safety and reliability failures go beyond one person, and point to the systemic issues that need to be urgently addressed in our transit system,” Wu said in a statement.

“Until we are funding the MBTA at the level we need to address our transportation and climate and equity goals, we will continue to struggle,” said Josh Ostroff, interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of transportation advocacy groups. “I regret that there isn’t the political will to commit the resources that we need.”

Straus said Poftak “operates within the administration and the management goals and initiatives of a governor.”

“For responsibility I would look to the broader administration policies and the strength in which the current board drives home safety as a special, if not paramount, priority,” Straus said in a statement.

Baker has touted the state’s investments in the transit system since he took office in 2015, but previously acknowledged, “there’s more that needs to be done.” Asked whether he has confidence in Poftak as general manager, Baker said, “I do.”

“I think the work that they’ve done there . . . to make the investments in modernizing the T and to deliver on a really aggressive capital plan is a huge part of creating the kind of operation and organization that can be reliably depended upon going forward,” said Baker.

Before becoming general manager, Poftak had never run a transit agency. He served as vice chairman of the MBTA’s former oversight board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, and he ran the Rappaport Institute at Harvard University after leading research projects at the Pioneer Institute, a think tank that promotes fiscal conservatism. He served as acting general manager of the MBTA in 2017 when the agency was conducting a nationwide search for a new leader.

Poftak took the helm of the T in 2019 when his predecessor, Luis Ramirez, left after just 15 months. He is the sixth person to serve in the role of general manager or acting general manager since Baker became governor in 2015, and he has seen the T through some of its biggest challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused ridership — and fare revenue — to plummet.

Under his leadership, the T has completed its proposal for a new bus network, the partial opening of the Green Line Extension, which was decades in the making, and the expansion of the T’s internal capacity to be able to spend nearly $2 billion per year on capital improvements.

Throughout his tenure, he has had his door open to transit advocates, they said, who often criticize the agency’s decisions.

Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, remembers when Poftak remained for two hours during a board meeting in 2019 to listen to residents speak against proposed fare hikes.

“It’s telling,” she said. “Steve walked into a really tough situation. Are there some deficits? Yes. But do I think he’s done a reasonably good job with the hand he’s been dealt? Yes, I do.”

Poftak often cites the hours he has logged riding the T when facing questions about the system’s safety. He can be spotted some weekdays on the Orange Line making his way downtown.

“I take the MBTA every day, my family takes the MBTA, the MBTA is safe,” he said after the Globe reported earlier this month that the Federal Transit Administration was “extremely concerned” with the safety of the system.

Poftak first faced alarm bells about safety at the T when the Fiscal and Management Control Board assembled an outside group of experts to conduct an audit following a series of derailments. They found that safety was not a priority for the agency and offered 61 recommendations in six categories: financial review, safety assurance, safety culture, safety policy, safety promotion, and safety risk management.

As of February, the T had completed two-thirds of the recommendations, including most of the safety culture and safety risk management recommendations, MBTA staff reported to the board, and one-third were in progress or on hold, including all of the financial review recommendations.

Asked what he would do differently looking back on his nearly three and a half years at the helm, Poftak said that he would have started the job with a “more rigorous examination of the T’s safety practices.” The T is changing the way it does inspections, quality checks, and maintenance based on recent safety events, Poftak said.

“As these recent incidents have brought to light, we still have more work to do,” he said during an interview with the Globe. “The MBTA is a tremendously complex system with a tremendous variety of vehicles and infrastructure. Making sure you’re capturing all the things you want to capture when you do inspections, tests, and quality assurance/quality control is an ongoing process.”

That ongoing process drew the attention of the federal government last month after 39-year-old Robinson Lalin died when his arm got stuck in a Red Line door and he was dragged more than 100 feet by the moving train. In an April 14 letter announcing the FTA was taking an “increased safety oversight role” of the T, the agency said, “it remains unclear what actions the MBTA Board and executive team are implementing to prevent and address the system’s safety violations.”

Earlier this month, the NTSB reported that “a fault” in a door control system on the Red Line train contributed to the fatality. The MBTA is still waiting for delivery of hundreds of new Red Line cars from a Chinese company first contracted in 2014 to replace the more-than-50-year-old cars like the one involved in Lalin’s death.

Poftak said despite recent safety incidents, he believes the system is safer than when he started, citing progress on the 2019 recommendations, record spending and safety hires, and a commitment to “building a safety culture.”

The MBTA’s chief safety officer, Ron Ester, told board members earlier this month that he expects the FTA will deliver its findings to the T sometime this summer. Poftak said he welcomes the FTA review.

“Building a safety culture is a process of continual improvement,” he said. “The FTA safety management inspection continues that cycle. We will learn things.”

Last year, the MBTA extended Poftak’s tenure another two years, through 2023. He said he doesn’t have plans to leave before then.