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Is it time to abolish (or consolidate) the MBTA? Gov. Charlie Baker says the idea is ‘a conversation worth having.’

A co-chair of the state's transportation committee floated the idea of wrapping the MBTA into MassDOT.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff
The latest on the MBTA

Is it time to say goodbye to the MBTA?

Even before an MBTA Orange Line train burst into flames during the Thursday morning commute, one of the leading transit lawmakers on Beacon Hill pondered aloud earlier this week whether the time has come for state leaders to consider a new approach to managing its transit system — one without the MBTA as the state knows it now.

On Monday, state Rep. William Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett who serves as the House co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, suggested he and his colleagues consider whether the agency should continue to operate separately from MassDOT.

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Perhaps, the time has come to consider merging the MBTA into the state’s DOT, Straus said.

“I would invite people to start asking the difficult question, which is, why do we even have the T?” he asked. “Why don’t we have an overall transportation system?”

Straus’s questions came as the committee launched into its first oversight hearing regarding safety management at the MBTA — an ongoing conversation amid the Federal Transit Administration’s probe into the system’s safety practices.

To be clear, Straus is not jumping to conclusions that the MBTA should be abolished or consolidated, he said.

But with a system plagued by several safety problems this year alone — including in May, when a man was dragged to his death by the Red Line — Straus wants his colleagues to consider the bigger picture of the MBTA’s future, not just budget tweaks and patch-ups to electrical systems, cracks, and the other nitty-gritty problems facing the T.

Straus, in his opening remarks to the committee, said it’s “not enough” for legislators to zero-in on a specific incident, either.

“Something deeper has been occurring and we have to find that out, so that from a T operation standpoint, from a legislative response standpoint, we don’t go from crisis to crisis because crisis to crisis has horrible consequences, as families tragically have learned over the years,” he said.

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For his part, Gov. Charlie Baker seems to be open to exploring the idea of folding the MBTA into MassDOT, too.

“I think that’s certainly a conversation worth having,” Baker said on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” on Thursday, when asked about Straus’s remarks.

“There’s a lot of complexity associated with that,” Baker clarified. “But I think that’s a conversation worth having.”

Bringing the MBTA into MassDOT is certainly not unprecedented.

Straus pointed to the now-defunct Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which the Legislature abolished by moving its operations to the DOT.

“At one point in time, historically, the Turnpike Authority made sense,” Straus said. “It identified, laid out, constructed, and operated for many, many years, a turnpike system. It had a funding source. It had its own staff. It had its own operations. But at some point, it didn’t contribute to the functioning of the overall transportation system.

“It may be that we’re at a similar point with the MBTA — that for the sake of the overall transportation system, some of its functions can be performed by other parts of the transportation system,” he added.

Baker, on GBH, also reflected on the Turnpike Authority merger, recounting a “pretty bumpy process.”

“But I think most people think that process and where we are today with respect to that issue is better than where we were before,” he said.

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In essence, the change could mean the MBTA’s construction and capital projects would be MassDOT’s responsibility, while the MBTA could focus on its safety and transit operations, according to Straus.

Again, this is not novel: Straus noted that, just in recent years, MassDOT took up the capital side of the ongoing South Coast Rail project.

When complete, the project will restore commuter rail service between Boston and Taunton, Fall River, and New Bedford for the first time since 1959. Straus highlighted the work is within its budget and on schedule, with service expected by the end of next year.

“Within MassDOT, we do have the ability to run good transit systems, good transportation systems,” he said. “So we really do have to, I think if we’re being serious here, and hope to end up with something useful to the public, and to the future of safe operations, we do have to, in my view, examine how the T operates in this world.”

Straus also recalled the winter of 2015, when a historic series of blizzards rendered the T inoperable.

“The highway division of MassDOT functioned very, very, very well,” he said. “The entire state wasn’t crippled during those snowstorms.”

The committee has two more hearings teed up in the coming months.

“I hope people do not shy away from asking the difficult questions,” Straus said.

In the meantime, MBTA officials said on Tuesday the agency is on track to meet the safety directives issued by the FTA in June, thereby retaining its federal funding.

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