Lawmakers to probe MBTA amid service cuts spurred by safety issues

Massachusetts House and Senate leaders said on Tuesday that there will be a Transportation Committee hearing in the “coming weeks” after the Federal Transportation Administration stepped in to voice concerns about safety in the MBTA’s operations.

“Given the FTA’s interim findings and alarming directives, there is an increased need to better understand the agency’s shortcomings and help restore public confidence,” Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) and House Speaker Ron Mariano (D-Quincy) said in a joint statement.

Frequency of weekday subway service dropped this week, essentially to weekend-level service, due to the FTA’s findings, which argued that the MBTA was out of compliance with the required number of subway dispatchers at its operations control center.

“With a limited number of dispatchers, these new timetables allow the MBTA to schedule dispatchers in compliance with Federal Transit Administration directives, and continue delivering service in a safe and reliable manner,” the MBTA said in a release last Friday. The reduced schedules will continue “through the summer,” the MBTA added.

The T has undertaken a recruitment effort to boost capacity, including offering bonuses and seeking to hire back former dispatchers. Ridership on the Red and Orange trains are still 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels, according to the agency.

On the Red Line, weekday trains are running every 14 to 15 minutes, instead of every 9 to 10 minutes, on the Ashmont and Braintree branches. Service is at every 7 to 8 minutes between JFK/UMass and Alewife stations.

The Orange Line and the Blue Line are seeing similar cuts.

State Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, who sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, said she empathizes with the T’s struggles with workforce shortages. She added that riders in her Mattapan-based district are used to “broken promises” from the MBTA. “It’s just disheartening at the end of the day,” she said.

As a regular MBTA customer — she rides the system two to three days a week — Fluker Oakley said lawmakers want to see the T run efficiently, and she voiced concerns about where the agency’s money is going.

Public transit advocates also voiced disappointment in the service cutbacks. “You’re trying to get ridership back and this is knocking it back in another direction,” said Lew Finfer, a Dorchester resident and a proponent of a millionaires’ tax that aims to send money to transportation and education coffers. “These are big systems and hard to manage,” he said, “but that’s why people are elected and that’s what funding is there for. It doesn’t help the individual; it doesn’t help the businesses.”

Jarred Johnson of the advocacy group Transit Matters said that low-income workers and workers of color will “bear the brunt” of the service cuts. He added that while Gov. Baker’s administration had a necessary focus on an increase in capital spending, it came “at the expense” of a focus on day-to-day maintenance and safety issues.  Additionally, he suggested, lawmakers and the Baker administration should treat the employee shortage as an emergency.

“While all agencies are facing staffing shortages, the T’s is particularly acute because of the MBTA’s tendency to use early retirement and buy-outs to avoid deficits and the fact that the Legislature has not developed a long term sustainable plan to fund the T,” he said in an email.

Hours after Mariano and Spilka announced plans for a Transportation Committee hearing, a bill sending money to the MBTA appeared to be on the move at the State House. A vote is expected this week on a bill that would set aside $400 million for “projects to address ongoing safety concerns related to the interim and final findings uncovered during the Federal Transit Administration’s Safety Management Inspection initiated in April 2022.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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