A former Republican congressman, LaHood served as the nation’s top transportation official during the Obama administration. In 2019, the T’s Board of Supervisors brought in a group of transit experts, including LaHood, to investigate safety at the MBTA after a series of derailments. Their reportwhich lists dozens of recommendations, offered an overall assessment similar to that a Federal Transit Administration Safety Report T earlier this year. This federal report found that the T’s focus on long-term projects came at the expense of day-to-day operations and security and left the agency with too few workers and weak safeguards.
LaHood’s comments came during a Legislature Transportation Committee hearing to explore how to improve safety at the MBTA.
When a new governor takes the helm in January, he will assume responsibility for an MBTA who is facing a long list of new federal security mandates and a severe labor shortage. The T reduces metro service by more than 20% this summer, after ALE discovered dispatchers were working shifts until 8 p.m. and told the agency it needed to staff up; this move significantly increased waiting times for trains.
LaHood encouraged lawmakers to “recreate” the MBTA with reforms.
“The current system is not working,” he said. “ALE said that, we said that, and the people who travel on the trains have said that time and time again.”
He urged the T to publish a comparison between the two reports and “specific measurable safety performance goals” that the agency can track publicly, and to ask its chief safety officer to certify that the agency’s budgets include sufficient resources to achieve these goals. He urged lawmakers to create a safety management agency to independently oversee the T and remove safety oversight from the DPU, which also oversees electric and gas utilities.
“This is an opportune time for all of you, as you are going to have a new administration, and there will be opportunities to make the changes needed . . . to make the T the safest possible system in the country,” said LaHood.
Earlier this month, state lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy discussed removing T safety oversight from DPU while grilling agency president Matthew Nelson about recent federal findings that the department failed to use its full authority to prevent security failures at the MBTA.
Nelson told lawmakers that the DPU’s transportation division is working to shift from responding to security incidents to trying to proactively prevent them, but the division is understaffed.
Since January 2019, the MBTA has experienced a higher overall rate of reportable safety occurrences and a higher rate of derailments than its peers, according to the FTA. In December 2019, LaHood and his fellow experts found an underfunded MBTA, where maintenance, engineering, and security staff were spread too thinly.
According to LaHood, MBTA chief executive Steve Poftak was making progress toward improving security within the agency before the pandemic hit.
“COVID put an end to all of that,” he told lawmakers.
In April, the almost unprecedented federal inspection of the T began right after a A Red Line passenger was dragged to death at Broadway station after his arm got caught in a train door. The drama followed a series of other incidents in which workers and passengers were injured, drawing the attention of the FTA.
“It was very alarming,” LaHood told reporters of the dragging death. “You can’t let that happen.”
The The committee’s House chairman, Representative William Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett, agreed that there was “no doubt [the pandemic] played a role” in the slow progression of the T towards a safer system.
Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat and co-chair of the committee, said not all of the T’s problems could be blamed on the pandemic. He pointed to the MBTA’s decision earlier this year to transfer $500 million from its operating budget to its long-term projects budgeta choice criticized by the EFA.
“The COVID excuse doesn’t really line up there,” Crighton said. “We were told over and over again that ‘we have all the money we need.’ Obviously, that wasn’t true.