The MBTA’s challenges

Only a Governor not seeking re-election could close the Orange Line for a month. We need further bold steps like that — bold steps to simplify the challenges that the men and women of the T are facing. And I say that as a regular rider of the T.

I have long believed that the scarcest resource for the MBTA is management bandwidth. Every needed change requires management attention and organizations can only change so fast.

My overall sense has been that MBTA management has been focused on the right top priority — bringing the core subway systems to a state of good repair.

I have been thrilled and remain thrilled by the vision of essentially new subways — new tracks, new power, new signals, new trains — for the Orange, Red, and Green lines. MBTA engineers have done their homework to create a transformative vision for each of these lines grounded in a minute examination of every foot of their tracks.

I have not lost faith that these plans will be executed and T riders will feel the benefits for decades to come. But I’ll confess that my faith did falter just a little as the safety incidents multiplied and the Federal Transit Administration issued its report documenting safety lapses.

For me, these were the most telling lines of the report:

In interviews, MBTA’s leadership explained their objective for the agency to build its way into enhanced capacity, safer, and more reliable passenger service and a better state of repair through an aggressive program of capital projects. While the agency is focused on this priority, its aging assets and infrastructure continue to deteriorate and fail. For example, the July 21, 2022, train fire on the transit bridge over the Mystic River was caused when a rusted sill panel fell off a rail transit train and contacted the third rail.

The combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety.

FTA Safety Management Inspection, Page 7-8

I could easily imagine the FTA’s interviews: MBTA leaders explaining to the FTA investigators the same transformative vision for the subways that they have explained to me. But the recent safety events and the findings of the FTA deliver a sobering message to MBTA leaders: You are trying to do more than you and your organization can handle.

That message creates a profound dilemma for management. On the one hand, they cannot slow down the capital plan for the core system — they do have an ancient infrastructure that is falling apart. On the other hand, it is emerging now that the whole organization is overextended.

I credit management for pivoting hard in the face of that dilemma and admitting that the organization needs some relief: Even as I wait for the train or stand in a crowded train, I am glad that they cut service frequency. And I fully support their tough decision on the Orange Line and will support further necessary shutdowns.

We can fault management, perhaps, for not recognizing sooner that the organization was overextended. The MBTA now has a staffing study in progress, but it appears likely that to achieve safe operations and to successfully implement its capital projects, the MBTA needs to expand its workforce. Had that conclusion been reached five years ago, we might be in a different place. Transit agencies across the country are experiencing similar challenges and it is not easy to hire transit professionals. But hindsight is 20-20 and I can’t claim to have seen the problem myself.

As a legislator, I will do the following over the months to come:

  • I will support management decisions to cut or suspend service as necessary to achieve safety goals. As the chair of the MBTA board said in a recent legislative hearing: “Safety first” means safety first; that does mean sacrificing other goals to achieve safety.
  • If the MBTA concludes that it needs an infusion of operating funds to achieve greater organizational depth, I will support that. The legislature has not at any time in recent memory refused an MBTA request for additional funds.
  • I will defer advocacy of ambitious new service ideas the consideration of which might distract the focus of management from achieving the capital and organizational improvements in the core subway operations. I have always felt an obligation as a politician to respect the need for management to pick and choose among competing priorities, but I will be especially conscious of that obligation.
  • I will do my best to share emerging service changes with constituents as they develop.

I have been riding the MBTA for decades and I have come to love the system — I know its faults, but I’m also grateful for the thousands of good rides I have had. I hope and believe that we can rebuild the organization together.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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