July 12, 2022

At Hearing, Warren Questions FTA Administrator on MBTA Maintenance and Safety Issues and Reiterates Calls for Rail Electrification

Video (Youtube)

Washington, D.C. – At today's Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee (BHUA) hearing, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Nuria Fernandez, Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), on serious safety concerns regarding the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which has been plagued with shutdowns, maintenance and numerous safety issues, and multiple deaths last year alone. Senator Warren’s exchange follows an April letter the FTA sent to the MBTA stating that it would immediately assume an increased safety oversight role of the MBTA system, and provide a roadmap to building a robust safety culture within the MBTA. Senator Warren urged Administrator Fernandez to release the MBTA full safety management inspection report “to get the T back on track.”

During their exchange, Senator Warren also reiterated her calls for investments in rail electrification, “to improve service for commuters,  reduce long-term maintenance costs, help meet climate goals, and solve issues across housing, affordability, traffic, congestion, efficiency, and at the same time create new jobs and promote regional economic prosperity.” Administrator Fernandez expressed support and agreed with Senator Warren that electrification would “help achieve all of the above.”


Transcript: Advancing Public Transportation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Update from the Federal Transit Administration.
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to discuss the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or the “MBTA,” which has been plagued with maintenance issues, shutdowns, and significant safety concerns after multiple deaths last year alone.

In a letter to the MBTA on April 14, the Federal Transit Administration – the agency that you run, Administrator Fernandez – expressed extreme concern for rider safety. The letter also stated that the FTA was going to (quote) “assume an increased safety oversight role of the MBTA system” [close quote] and conduct inspections and obtain data to provide the MBTA with a (quote) “roadmap to building a robust safety culture.” I share the FTA’s concerns.

After the FTA issued special safety directives, however, the MBTA reacted by reducing service frequency on many lines. And these service cuts and long delays have negatively impacted all riders, many of whom rely on public transportation to try to get to work or school.

So I have two intertwined questions. The first is, how did we get to a point where people are literally dying on the T? And second, when will the FTA have a detailed roadmap to get the T back on track? 

Nuria Fernandez, Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration: Senator Warren, thank you so much for highlighting the importance of safety in public transportation, in particular in the rail system. We, as you noted in the letter that was issued by our Chief Safety Officer at the Federal Transit Administration, was a result of a series of events that have occurred subsequent to a study of 2019 that identified a series of issues that needed to be addressed that the Transit Agency was in line to address. And when we experienced ongoing safety incidents that could have been averted, that’s the reason that we sent that letter. 

Senator Warren: And I’m glad you did, I’m sorry, let me just, you talk about a series of issues, how is it, the question I have is, how did we get to this place? Where people die on the T? What went wrong?

Administrator Fernandez: That is the question. The situation here is, safety is our number one priority and when we see that safety, that the focus on safety, whether it’s culture, whether it’s decision making, or lack thereof, contributes to incidents that result in death, that’s when we raise the flag and we go beyond just raising the flag where we step in and we immediately sent personnel so that we could conduct a safety management inspection and it was through the inspection that we identified additional issues and that’s the reason we issued a safety directive. 

Senator Warren:: When do you expect to have a report so we can get the T back on track? Literally. 

Administrator Fernandez: Well, we are going to be issuing a report in August-

Senator Warren: -August.

Administrator Fernandez: -to the Safety Management Inspection Findings. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority needs to continue, one with the training, they need to hire personnel and that’s one of the reasons to your second question that has to do with the impact on ridership, the impact on service. And that impact on service only occurs when projects and maintenance have not been completed in a timely manner that now need to be performed during service. 

Senator Warren: I appreciate that, I think what you’re saying is the MBTA wasn’t paying enough attention to the maintenance and inspections needed to keep the system safe. I look forward to the report in August, I’m going to hold you to that.

But, prioritizing safety and service be either-or. It should be both-and.

I have one other thing I want to ask about, and that is investment in electrification. I think it’s a big part of the answer when it comes to making the MBTA both safer and more modern. Electrification would improve service, would reduce long-term maintenance costs, would help us meet our climate goals, and would solve issues across housing, affordability, traffic, congestion, efficiency, and at the same time create new jobs and promote regional economic prosperity and environmental justice. But under the Baker administration, the MBTA is not prioritizing electrification.

Administrator Fernandez, while electrification would cost more in up-front capital costs, would this be a way to make the T safer, more reliable, greener, create jobs, and reduce costs in the long term?

Administrator Fernandez: Senator Warren, it would achieve all of the above. And as a matter of fact we did issue a grant to MBTA for the replacement of a bus facility. It’s going to be a combination of, I believe there’s a [INAUDIBLE 5:30] involved to be sure that they have an adequate facility so that they can start to accommodate electric vehicles. 

Senator Warren:  You know, electrifying the commuter rail would mean a faster, more reliable ride and a cleaner environment. And it is mystifying that the T has no tangible plans to get us there.

Transitioning to an electric system would be costly, but right now, the Commonwealth has a large budget surplus and is set to receive record amounts of federal funding from the infrastructure bill. Rather than continuing to pour money into dirty, unreliable technologies from the last century, we can replace broken down trains with electric ones and invest more in electric buses.  

I know that this is not going to be easy, but we have to use every tool in the toolbox to avert these disasters and give Massachusetts residents the first class infrastructure they deserve.

Thank you. 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.