Wu Wants Fed Help To Shore Up MBTA Workforce

AUG. 29, 2022.....The greater Boston region is waiting to see what federal overseers will conclude about the MBTA's safety problems, and Mayor Michelle Wu joined transit activists on Monday to call for additional federal intervention to help reverse service cuts at the agency.

Wu, her transportation deputy and major advocacy groups sounded the alarm about MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak's acknowledgement last week that reduced trips on the Red, Orange and Blue Lines will remain in place this fall, which came the same day the T announced it would scale back service on dozens of bus lines as well.

Those changes, Wu and others said, put "the region's transportation future in jeopardy."

"These service cuts will overlap with the unprecedented Orange and Green Line shutdowns, compounding significant challenges for riders and the region, and raising serious equity, mobility, environmental, and economic concerns," Wu said in a statement with the groups LivableStreets Alliance, A Better City and Transit Matters "Magnifying the impact of chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, these cuts underscore the MBTA's continued inability to address critical systemic staffing issues."

City officials and transit advocates asked the state's congressional delegation and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to get involved, urging them to help the MBTA accelerate its response to a rail dispatcher shortage behind the subway cuts and a bus driver shortage that prompted cuts on many routes.

The bus cuts in particular strip service from "the most loyal and transit-dependent riders," they said.

Despite offering a hiring bonus of up to $4,500 and other recruitment efforts, the MBTA has struggled to attract workers to run its fleet of buses. In the summer, about 3 percent of scheduled trips never took place due to the shorthanded staff, and the T needs about 300 more drivers, officials said when they announced bus cuts last week.

"The Department of Transportation and Department of Labor must work with the MBTA, state officials, and labor unions to understand and remove the barriers to attracting this essential workforce, financial or contractual," Wu, city Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge and the advocacy groups said.

U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, Wu's predecessor, oversees the U.S. Department of Labor and is familiar with the struggles facing the T and the labor landscape in Massachusetts.

The MBTA slashed subway service on three major lines in June after the Federal Transit Administration warned that insufficient dispatcher staffing at the T's operations control center posed a major safety risk.

While the MBTA has some new dispatchers in the training pipeline, Poftak said last week those cuts will remain in place "until we feel we have an adequate level of staffing at the OCC."

Other steps Wu and her allies endorsed include expanded MBTA communication in advance of future service changes and regular public reports on staffing.

"In addition to the direct impact on mobility and quality of life for the people of Metro Boston, the MBTA's inability to provide full service will increase some of the nation's worst congestion, further lock in unsustainable travel patterns, and make our decarbonization goals more difficult to reach," they said. "While safety must be the MBTA's number one priority, the MBTA needs the support of every level of government to urgently implement a plan to address safety and provide robust, reliable, and equitable transit options to support commuting and mobility within the region. We stand ready and eager to partner on these needs and accelerate the return of safe, reliable service that our communities deserve."

Lawmakers sought to require the MBTA to submit regular reports with the Legislature describing unfilled job positions, recent hires and the time new workers need for training as part of an infrastructure bond bill (H 5151) they approved in the final hours of formal sessions for the term.

However, Gov. Charlie Baker returned that section of the bill and another seeking safety-related reports with proposed amendments. Lawmakers decamped in August to take vacations or focus on reelection campaigns and have not touched Baker's amendments in the two-plus weeks since he offered them, leaving the proposed increase in MBTA reporting requirements in limbo.

A final report from the FTA about its safety management inspection of the MBTA, which could carry additional orders for immediate fixes or further ramp up the pressure on the T, could be imminent. The agency has targeted August for publication of its final report, and an FTA spokesperson said Sunday the agency anticipates releasing that document this week.

The possibility that the T could be placed under a federal receivership or face major structural changes has surfaced due to the transit agency's ongoing problems and the safety issued flagged by federal regulators.

Last week. Sen. Ed Markey called for a "deep partnership" between city, state and federal officials to ensure that the MBTA's problems are "fixed as quickly as possible" and suggested that receivership questions may be answered by the success of repairs and fixes being made during the one-month shutdown of the Orange Line.

A partnership has to "come together, work quickly," he said, and "fix it on a very rapid basis over the next month with the objective of ensuring that history does not repeat itself again. If it does, then I think we have to visit that question of receivership. Let us hope that this one month gives us a chance to fix all of those problems."

Gov. Baker on Sunday toured repair work on the Orange Line and the T says it completed about 37 percent of its planned work on the line during the first week of the shutdown.

[Michael P. Norton contributed reporting]