MBTA pulls all new Orange Line cars after ‘battery failure’; trouble comes amid T’s litany of misery

MBTA pulls all new Orange Line cars after 'battery failure';  trouble comes amid T's litany of misery

Amid the litany of misery, Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano stepped up pressure on the MBTA on Tuesday, announcing that the legislature’s transportation committee will hold a hearing “in the coming weeks” to better understand what federal transit officials described last week as a dysfunctional agency. .

The announcement was a direct rebuke from Governor Charlie Baker, who, according to legislative leaders, asked for and was granted control of the MBTA more than seven years ago. Lawmakers also simultaneously decided on Tuesday to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for the system to address what they termed “ongoing security concerns” identified by the Federal Transit Administration’s inspection of the T.

Last week, the FTA said there were coordinators working 20-hour days, personnel with expired safety certifications, runaway trains injuring workers and no quick plans to repair sections of track that are in disrepair. In response, the MBTA said it would reduce trains on three subway lines from Monday — basically using a weekday weekend schedule — because it didn’t have enough coordinators to safely staff the operations center.

“The FTA’s findings and the MBTA’s subsequent budget cuts do not inspire public confidence in our transit system,” Mariano and Spilka said in a joint statement, noting that in the wake of the record winter of 2015 lawmaker Baker has authority over the agency.

Baker appoints the T’s board of directors, and his administration’s Department of Public Utilities is responsible for direct oversight of security at the MBTA.

“Since then, it has been the responsibility of the administration to keep up with maintenance and operate an efficient system that customers can rely on,” the legislative leaders said. “Given the FTA’s interim findings and alarming guidance, there is an increasing need to better understand the agency’s shortcomings and help restore public confidence.”

Spilka, who spoke to reporters at an unrelated event Tuesday morning, said she has not yet spoken to Baker about plans for a surveillance hearing.

“The governor is in charge of the T,” Spilka said after a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “He asked to take charge in 2015. We gave it to him. He has all the tools there, hopefully, to know what is and isn’t funded.”

A Baker spokeswoman said he supports T’s decision to cut service to address the FTA’s findings, as well as the plan to offer a $10,000 bonus to recruit more coordinators. But Baker aides did not respond directly to criticism from lawmakers, noting that his administration has spent billions of dollars funding new tracks, cars and signals “to make up for decades of deferred maintenance by the state government.”

“The administration shares the legislature’s goal of making the T as safe as possible,” said Anisha Chakrabarti, a spokeswoman for Baker.

While the FTA continues to investigate security at the T and final findings are expected in August, the issues remain. The removal of all new Orange Line cars on Monday marks the second time the agency has taken them off the track in six weeks due to safety concerns. The agency is also keeping its new Red Line cars out of service while it works to determine the cause of the battery failure. In May, the MBTA found that bolts on some of the braking systems of the new cars had not been installed properly.

The MBTA is still awaiting delivery of hundreds of new Orange and Red Line railcars from a Chinese company first contracted in 2014 that should replace the older cars, such as the one implicated in the April death of a Red Line passenger being towed to the station. dead when his arm got stuck in a train door.

The legislature has rarely enlisted state transportation officials for supervisory hearings. In 2019, the transportation commission held one to dig into breakdowns at the motor vehicle registry after a crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire, leaving the registry in crisis.

Legislative leaders have been pressured to more aggressively address the failures of the T, including both Democrats running for state auditor.

Asked Tuesday whether the legislature has evaded its own responsibility to properly fund and monitor the MBTA, Spilka said it is the governor who is responsible for knowing the agency’s needs, noting that the agency has shifted money that is allocated for day-to-day operations to longer-term, capital costs.

“The interim findings and subsequent recommendations were quite damning in their report. Much worse than I think most of us expected,” Spilka said of the FTA’s findings. “I think in the legislature we need to find out, what’s going on?

“We have provided all the funding we have requested from the administration and the T. It is clear that the operational [side] is where the shortcomings are,” she said. “They need more staff, they need more people to run the trains and the buses. Do they need more money? No request for more money has been made.”

Still, House leaders indicated they intend to pump more money into the T. The chamber released its version of a $10.4 billion loan bill Tuesday that includes $400 million to address public safety concerns raised by the FTA’s “interim and final findings.”

The language also requires the T to work with the DPU and the Department of Transportation to identify which projects will be funded with the money.

Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, did not provide a timeline for when lawmakers will schedule the hearing. She said the lawmaker will need to coordinate with the FTA around its “intensive” investigation.

Senator Brendan P. Crighton, the chamber speaker of the Joint Committee on Transport, said he expects a hearing to be held in late July — when the legislature’s formal session ends — but hopefully “much sooner than that.”

The problems at the T have been feuding for months. It has been beset by a series of incidents, including crashes, breakdowns and the death of a man who became trapped in the train car doors before being dragged a short distance. It culminated in an almost unprecedented intervention by the FTA earlier this year.

This week’s shift cut, which came at just three days’ notice, was also a symptom of a more systemic illness, the Globe reported: Even as the T has added new positions to its books, hundreds of safety-related jobs in the whole system , including in the Operational Control Center, remain unfilled.

As of May 31, the MBTA had budgeted, but not yet filled, 586 open safety jobsalmost three times the number of vacancies from just two years earlier.

Taylor Dolven can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @taydolven† Matt Stout can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mattpsstout† Samantha J. Gross can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross