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Last August, Katie Choe was faced with the seemingly herculean task of handling the aftermath of the Federal Transit Administration’s bombshell report documenting safety challenges within the MBTA.
Tapped to head the authority’s new Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, Choe — previously the MBTA’s chief of capital delivery — now leads the work to address the report’s findings.
“It was hard to hear [some of the findings], but there was a lot of excitement around being able to bring change to the MBTA,” Choe told Boston.com in a recent interview.
“We needed to look at the root causes of some of the challenges that we had found and really look to make some safety culture changes within the organization,” she said. “And that all starts with investing in our workforce.”
The FTA cited staffing challenges in a number of its findings, noting in its report that “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.”
The FTA recently approved the last of the MBTA’s corrective action plans stemming from the August report, and the T is now in the implementation phase. Most of those plans are expected to span two to three years, while the longest will last about five years, according to Choe.
A safety oversight veteran whose career has spanned Boston’s public works department and the Massachusetts Port Authority, she described regular meetings with the FTA — likely around five a week, sometimes more — and said the MBTA’s work with federal administrators “has not been an antagonistic sort of relationship, but rather a partnership.”
Here’s what else Choe had to say about the MBTA’s ongoing work to address the FTA’s findings, improve service, and rebuild trust in the T.
Editor’s note: This interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
Boston.com: Have you identified any of the more challenging parts to that process of addressing the FTA directives?
Choe: I think the biggest challenge that we will be facing is the workforce challenges — the recruiting, hiring, and retaining the amount of staff that we believe we will need in order to run the transit agency that we want to run. And this is a national problem; there is a national workforce shortage in the transit industry. … But the MBTA really is a great place to work, and the sorts of jobs that we’re hiring for are really great jobs — there’s a lot of opportunity there.
Do you have a rough idea of how many vacancies you’re looking to fill at this point?
We are currently started on a workforce assessment and five-year hiring plan that’s going to give us a much better picture of how many people we actually will need. … Our current plan is that we will need to hire about 2,000 people over the course of the upcoming year, year-and-a-half, two years. But I think when we are done with that workforce assessment, we’ll be able to refine that number a bit.
Could you tell us a little about that assessment and some of the things it’s looking at?
So we are looking at, across the entire agency, … what do we need to fully support the MBTA operations and our core mission of safely moving people? And so we are taking a bottom-up look at, what’s the absolute minimum that we can do and still run safe service? But then we’re looking at the top: what’s the absolute best-in-class service that we could be running, and what would we need to do that? And then what is the scale in between, for every single role at the MBTA?
So it’s a very large assessment that we are undertaking, and then we will start looking at a recruitment and hiring plan to support those workforce needs.
Some T leaders have been pretty outspoken about how past hiring plans have made less progress than hoped. What do you hope to do differently this time around to see that success?
That’s one of the things that we actually have the firm that’s helping us out with this assessment doing, is looking at what best practices are, what the gaps might be, and what we do versus those best practices. [We’re] looking at what other transit agencies are doing, but also what other industries that might not be in transit but have sort of similar workforce challenges that we have, what they do to attract new employees.
So we are aware that we need to do something different in order for this to be effective, and so we’ll come up with that plan as part of this process.
Speaking of workforce, one of the findings in the FTA report was about the high level of vacancies for repairers and how that was impacting the number of vehicles that could be in service, particularly on the Red Line. And Red Line riders have been pretty vocal about the service impacts that they’re seeing. Has there been any progress there?
There has been progress on hiring of repairers, and we have been able to get the Red Line car count up. [On Monday, the Red Line had 21 six-car trains in service, according to a T spokesperson.] …
The thing that’s really challenging, when we start talking about something like repairers leading to a shortage of Red Line vehicles, is that it’s never that easy, right? We have a tendency, because it’s such a complicated issue, sometimes to oversimplify how we talk about it, but everything really very much is a web. So while we solve one problem — like having enough repairers — then it may be the operators that are a constraint, and then it might be the supply chain on the parts that we need to repair the vehicle. So everything has to work together in order to actually run increased and smooth and reliable service. …
One of the other challenges that we’ve had on the Red Line is we’ve seen a lot of vandalism of cars lately, and so those take cars out of service, they take the time [from] our vehicle maintenance team in order to repair those cars. And then we are running into some challenging COVID-related supply chain issues still, to get parts to repair those cars. …
So I think that we have to be careful not to oversimplify the challenges that we’re seeing, but we recognize those complexities and how everything is related to each other and are trying to lift the whole tide so that we can provide better service.
In terms of overall progress on the FTA report, how would you describe the pace and quality of the work in addressing those findings so far?
So the special directives that came out in June, we’re making great progress on or have made great progress on [those]. We’re seeing real change in the way that the work is being done, and that’s been really positive for the authority.
The work from the August special directives, we’re still in an earlier stage just given the fact that they came out a few months later. And so we’re feeling good momentum on those, but it’s a little too early to talk too much about big wins there.
And do you think that process is progressing quickly enough?
Yeah, I do. I mean, I think everybody would just like everything to go faster. … But we’re moving with haste, I would say, to make sure that we’re doing things well, that we’re being comprehensive, that we are not just checking the box but actually doing the work that needs to be done to create sustainable change. And that does take time, so we’re being responsible about how we’re responding to the FTA’s report.
Public trust and faith in the T has really taken a dip, especially following the FTA report. Do you think the MBTA is on the right track to address that?
I do. It’s been a huge focus of my groups, the Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, but certainly the MBTA overall to try and regain that trust with our ridership. Part of what we are doing is trying to increase our transparency on the work that we’re doing, and so making sure that all of our progress, that all of the work is being talked about.
We’re doing outreach internally within the MBTA to make sure our employees understand what’s going on, but then also starting to do outreach outside of the MBTA, because in order for us to be successful, our riders need to trust us.
The MBTA is safe. I ride it every day; my children ride it every day. … And so we want our riders in the public to believe that, too.
How would you describe the general sense among the T and its staff when it comes to making this progress and sort of righting the ship?
I think that there is a lot of excitement to make change with a lot of the staff. But I do think that morale has certainly taken a dip with the FTA report. It was very difficult to read for everyone, and change is very difficult. So while people are excited to make the change, actually doing it can sometimes be really hard, and so we’re trying to support all of our employees through this change process, because there will be a lot of change in a relatively short period of time — even if that is years, it’s still a pretty short period of time in the sort of grand scheme of things.
So I think that while we’re building rider trust, we’re also building trust with our employees and making sure that they feel supported through this whole process.
You mentioned that it’s going to be a years-long process, and we’re a ways away from being able to close the book on the FTA report, but do you see the Quality, Compliance, and Oversight office having a permanent role in the MBTA beyond that report?
I do. We’re still kind of formulating what that looks like, but what we don’t want is the FTA to come in again and tell us we have to change a bunch of things, right?
So what we are trying to do is create that internal capacity to have an independent department — which would be this department — be able to do that sort of audit or inspection-type work to make sure that we’re catching places that could become challenges early, and then working with the sort of owners of those challenges to fix it before it becomes a problem.
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