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MBTA says it’s on track to meet federal safety directives

“We are pursuing right now a process where we’re coming up with clear directions on what everyone’s supposed to do."

Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe
General Manager of the MBTA Steve Poftak speaks at a press conference in the lobby of the Ashmont red line station on June 22, 2020. Blake Nissen / The Boston Globe

The MBTA is on track to satisfy the safety directives issued by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) on June 15, thus retaining their federal funding, representatives from the authority told the MBTA Board of Directors at its board meeting Tuesday.

The FTA threatened to withhold up to 25% of financial assistance to the MBTA if these directives are not acted upon, but so far the MBTA has successfully submitted three directives on time, with the fourth being due Wednesday.

Each directive has a working group chaired by a different senior member of the MBTA organizing these efforts.

Delayed maintenance

Eric Stoothoff, chief engineer of the MBTA, delivered an update on the first directive, #22-4: Delayed Critical Maintenance. The directive had nine actions in three areas related to maintenance, including deficiencies in personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines, right of way safety, defective track conditions, and poor management practices impacting track repair. 

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Stoothoff spoke to his team’s effort to develop a consistent policy across the MBTA for required PPE, a compliance program to ensure that the policy and risk management is adhered to by the workforce, and a safety management working group that will pull together various ideas to make one cohesive policy document, with a training component for the future. 

He referenced the work already done as well. There are four curved sections of track on the Orange Line that need maintenance. One has already been completed and the rest are scheduled in the diversion calendar for the fall. 

Train movement procedure

Chief Mechanical Officer at the MBTA Steve Hicks provided an update on directive #22-5: Operating Procedure Related to Train Movements. This directive urged the MBTA to establish specific procedures for disabled trains, develop training to support new documentation, and come up with a robust automated process to keep things running at a high level of safety. His team reviewed documentation and conducted investigations into incidents.

Their biggest takeaway was that there was not adequate communication between the people that work in the yards and the car house, and so they established ways for them to do so.

“We are pursuing right now a process where we’re coming up with clear directions on what everyone’s supposed to do,” Hicks said. 

Staffing and safety certification

Assistant General Manager of the MBTA Operations Control Center (OCC) Aisheea Isidor presented updates on directive #22-6: OCC Staffing and Number of Hours People are Working, and #22-7: Safety Recertification Process for Employees. 

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The first directive was remedied by providing daily and weekly reports of hours worked for supervisors, dispatchers, and managers, and adjusting work schedules for bus, heavy rail, and light rail. There’s a dashboard that can be checked that contains the hours OCC employees are working in real time to continue to monitor these issues.

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Even with some concerns about hiring numbers, a blitz of new employees should help with the issue of overworked employees, she said.

The board pushed Isidor on the 20-hour shifts some subway dispatchers were working in the OCC.

“I want to make sure that you don’t have any other situations like that for any job classifications because it’s really critical, especially from a safety perspective and also from a human health perspective, that people don’t work longer hours than is accepted,” board member Mary Beth Mello said. 

#22-7: Safety Recertification Process for Employees had to do with recertifying employees, and Isidor reported that everyone who needed to be, except workers that are out long term, has been recertified. This will be reported weekly to the Department of Public Utilities and the FTA, and there are now consequences for employees who don’t get themselves recertified. 

More costs to come

Chief Administrative Officer of the MBTA David Panagore shared that the costs associated with these directives, including new equipment and increased staffing, come to about $300 million. 

The MBTA had only budgeted $100 million for the directives as of last week, but the state budget deal reached by lawmakers on Sunday would add $266 million into a reserve account for the agency to help make changes outlined by the FTA’s findings.

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Steve Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, noted that the FTA plans to release an additional report in August, which will likely mean more costs for the MBTA.

“[That report] will likely have additional information in it which will require us to have additional corrective action plans, and we don’t have a great deal of clarity on the volume, scope, and depth of any potential other caps, but they will also likely require funding to support,” Poftak said. 

These developing costs may pose greater issues for the MBTA, but Poftak affirmed it’s not stopping them from taking these issues seriously, and that they take action as soon as they can.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that we are waiting to be told to go — as soon as we got the directives we began to take action,” he said. 

The rest of the meeting included voicemails from community members sharing concerns about the MBTA, and presentations on ridership numbers and hiring plans; operation, diversion, and maintenance updates; and the asset management program.

Four presentations — on a proposed real estate purchase; a fare-free bus routes program update; a proposed collective bargaining agreements; and a proposed construction project for the Codman Yard Expansion and Improvements Project — required votes from the board, and all presentations were successfully approved.

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