MBTA facing corrective actions in 4 major areas

BOSTON — Federal transit overseers will wrap up their on-site inspections of the MBTA this week, and they have already flagged a quartet of major safety issue areas they want the agency to address quickly, the T’s top safety official said Monday.

In a meeting that also featured news about the June 1 Green Line crash and manufacturing issues with Red and Orange Line trains, MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ronald Ester said he expects the Federal Transit Administration to complete on-the-ground inspections ahead of a “closeout meeting” with T leaders on Friday.

Ester said FTA officials informed the MBTA of “four issues they would like to see actions taken in the short term before issuance of a formal report.” The issues are staffing at the operations control center, safety protections in train yards, delayed track maintenance, and recertifying MBTA workers.

He expects those topics to be highlighted in “formal notification” from the federal agency this week.

“The staffing at the operations control center -- that’s basically making sure they have adequate staff to perform the work at the operations control center,” Ester told the MBTA board’s safety, health and environment subcommittee when asked to elaborate on the issues. “Safe operations within yard limits, that’s putting protections in place to prevent incidents from occurring within those yard limits. As it relates to delayed track maintenance, it’s ensuring that maintenance is done and we have a state of good repair, and the recertifications of individuals that require recertifications to perform their work on a daily basis (is) making sure they haven’t lapsed in those recertification processes.”

Ester said T officials are at work on a response plan and will share it with the FTA soon. He agreed to return to the MBTA safety subcommittee with a “readout” of the Friday meeting between agency officials and FTA investigators while stressing the discussion will not represent the “final report” from the federal probe.

An FTA spokesperson who agreed to communicate only on background said the agency’s on-the-ground inspection is close to complete.

“The Federal Transit Administration is committed to safety as our number-one priority and will ensure that is also the primary focus of everyone at the MBTA and (Department of Public Utilities),” the spokesperson said. “Our safety management inspection is nearing its conclusion, and we are calling on the T to take timely corrective actions to ensure the safety of the employees and the passengers on MBTA trains. We will provide more detail soon.”

Ester’s outline indicates where federal experts may see the most immediate red flags at the T.

Staffing in departments beyond the operations center has been a challenge for the MBTA in recent months, as it has for the broader Department of Transportation and many other public and private employers struggling to attract workers in a competitive hiring market.

Maintenance has also long been an area of scrutiny. The most recent system-wide estimate of needs the T produced came in May 2019, when officials projected it would cost $10.1 billion to replace all outdated equipment and infrastructure with modern alternatives.

The agency has increased its annual capital spending, which covers maintenance, modernization and expansions, during Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration despite facing persistent operating budget shortfalls.

It’s still not clear where the nearly unprecedented federal investigation at the MBTA will land.

The FTA has only conducted a safety management inspection of this scope once before, which resulted in federal officials taking control of safety oversight at the Washington, D.C.-area Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for more than three years.

Federal officials launched the probe in mid-April, at the time describing themselves as “extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues” at the MBTA. Several incidents since then have heightened the pressure.

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