October 17, 2022

ICYMI: At Hearing, Warren Questions Key Officials on Monumental Failures of Leadership and Safety at the T

Warren Questioned Federal Transit Administrator, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) about MBTA and DPU’s Failures

Warren: “We held this hearing, because it is crucial to understand what has gone wrong so that we can remedy it, and move forward to something not just a little better, but a whole lot better. The people of the Commonwealth deserve a reliable transit system that works for them and works for their families. And to achieve that vision, we need new leadership from top to bottom.”

Video of Hearing 

Boston, MA – In case you missed it, on Friday, October 14, 2022, chairing a hearing of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned key officials about the failures of the leadership and safety at the T, which have resulted in years of dangerous and deadly collisions, derailments, accidents, and delays for riders. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also joined the hearing to question witnesses. 

Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Administrator Nuria Fernandez testified about the FTA’s August 2022 report, which found significant failures in the management of the MBTA. The report identified clear safety problems and grave concerns about the MBTA’s and DPU's implementation of reforms that FTA had been asking them to make for years.

Senator Warren also questioned Steve Poftak, the General Manager of the MBTA, and Matthew Nelson, Chair of the Massachusetts DPU about the failures in leadership and safety found at the T. 

When Senator Warren asked MBTA General Manager Poftak for a specific date to implement the 53 of the changes FTA says are needed to keep the T safe, he could not provide one. Senator Warren also criticized DPU leadership, noting that none of the three DPU Commissioners had experience or expertise in transit issues, and called out its inability to effectively conduct MBTA oversight. 

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Jarred Johnson, Executive Director of transit advocacy group TransitMatters, testified on the importance of the T for building and growing the economy of Boston and the surrounding area within the Commonwealth. They made the case for electrification to improve the reliability and safety of public transit, and spoke on the need to expand T service to reach more communities and build economic opportunity. 

Senator Warren called for stronger leadership at the T that will step up, create a plan, and use all resources available to get the T back on track. Senator Warren committed to continuing to fight for federal funding alongside Senator Markey, but stressed that ultimately, it is the responsibility of the governor and MBTA leadership to use this funding responsibly and fix its monumental failures to get the T back on track. 

Transcript: Economic Impacts of Inadequate Transit Maintenance and Oversight: Examining Management Failures at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy
Friday, October 14, 2022

Senator Warren's Opening Remarks

Senator Elizabeth Warren: So, this hearing will come to order. 

I want to welcome all of you to a hearing of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy.

Public transportation is an essential service that directly influences the economic growth and access to employment in Boston and other U.S. cities, which are key issues for the Economic Policy Subcommittee. That’s why I thought it was crucial to convene this hearing about the state of the T and to invite my good friend and partner, Senator Markey, to join me.

The T is the beating heart of Greater Boston. Millions of people rely on it to get to work, to school, to our stores, to our restaurants, to go to a game, to visit friends and family – and then to make it back home. The T helps cut pollution, and, without it, Boston traffic would be even worse. 

Without the T – which, in one form or another, has been around now for 150 years – our city and our Commonwealth would not be the same.

For generations, we have relied on the T. We have counted on the people and organizations in charge to make the T work for us – to make the buses and trains run safely and on time. But we can no longer rely on the T. The T is failing.  

In the last two years, there's been a series of dangerous and even deadly collisions, derailments, and accidents on the T. Multiple derailments on the red line. A collision on the green line that injured dozens of people. Workplace injuries. A horrific death when a red line passenger was caught in a door and dragged off a platform.

Finally, the federal government stepped in. The Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, conducted an in-depth study and concluded that, in this two-year period, there were, quote, “numbers and rates of derailments and collisions on the MBTA rail transit system that far exceed industry average and the safety performance of MBTA’s peer transit systems.”

The list of management failures is a long one.

After the April 2022 fatality on the Red Line, the Federal Transit Administration opened a broad safety investigation of the MBTA, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, or DPU, which is responsible for oversight of the T. 

The result of that investigation was released in August, and it is a long and scary list of problems. Just a partial list of troubles that FTA identified includes:

The MBTA does not have enough staff to carry out current operations – and that the agency has, quote, “not demonstrated the organizational capacity to recruit and hire personnel.”

The FTA found that, quote, “Operating and maintenance rules and procedures are not implemented as required, and that technical training is “underresourced without sufficient resources and lacks oversight.”

The FTA found that the MBTA was not conducting adequate oversight of its contractors.

The FTA found that safety risk assessment guidance was ambiguous and confusing, that management tools were not up to the task of addressing safety risks, and that MBTA’s investigations of safety problems were not even looking at all the right information.

And, FTA really laid into the T’s management, finding that – and again, I quote, “MBTA’s Executive Management does not consistently ensure its decisions related to safety risks are based on safety data analysis or documented facts.” Simple translation? When it comes to safety, the T’s management is just making it up.

And there’s more. There's another state agency responsible for oversight of the T, the Department of Public Utilities. For over 50 years, DPU has been responsible for oversight of equipment safety and operations at the MBTA. In other words, DPU is responsible for managing the management of MBTA.

But here’s what FTA had to say about how badly DPU does its job:

FTA found that the DPU does not use its resources effectively to identify and resolve safety risks.

The FTA found that DPU lacks independence from MBTA.

The FTA found that quote, “DPU has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at MBTA.” 

And the FTA reached a simple and devastating conclusion. Again, I quote, according to the FTA, “DPU has not demonstrated an ability to address MBTA safety issues and concerns.”

Overall, the FTA analysis contained 20 findings regarding safety problems at MTBA and provided the agency with a list of 53 actions required to address these concerns. It also contained 4 findings regarding DPU’s failures and provided DPU with a list of 9 actions required to address these concerns. And by the way, the FTA also found that seven leftover action items from a 2019 audit of DPU remained unresolved.

This is a dangerous situation that has been allowed to fester for far too long. We are here today at our field hearing to examine management of the MBTA and DPU and to press for change.

Every single FTA action item needs to be checked off – immediately. But that alone is not enough. The people of Massachusetts need a safe system, they also need a transit system that works – a system that is reliable, accessible, frequent, dependable, clean, and that gets you where you need to go without crazy delays.  

Now here's the good news. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’ve got the resources to do it – that law will provide $580 million for modernization and safety improvements at the MBTA. In addition, Massachusetts currently has massive tax revenue surpluses.

But here’s the bad news. We can’t just buy our way out of these problems and wish our way to a T that works. We need the right leadership in place at the MBTA and DPU so that we can have a functioning T that riders throughout the region can depend on.

I know we have the right leadership in the Mayor of Boston, I appreciate Mayor Wu joining us today to talk about the importance of the T for the city and the whole metro area. We also have excellent leadership from the community. I appreciate that Jarred Johnson of Transit Matters will be here to discuss the scope of the T’s problems and their impact on residents of our community.

I also want to thank Administrator Fernandez of the FTA for accepting my invitation to join us in Boston today. The FTA report on MBTA safety is a bombshell. She will help explain what the agency found, and what role they will play in getting it fixed.  

And finally, I’m glad Mr. Poftak, the MBTA General Manager, and Mr. Nelson, the DPU Chair, also accepted my invitation to appear as witnesses. We need to hear firsthand from them about how the MBTA got into this mess, and how DPU allowed it to happen – and to find out what they are doing to clean it up and get it back on track. And that is why I invited them to testify before this subcommittee, so the public can hold the MBTA and DPU to account.

So thank you to our witnesses, I'm now going to turn it over to Senator Markey for his opening statement. Senator Markey, I'm so glad that you could be here to do this – thank you for coming.

Panel 1, Round 1: MBTA Maintenance/Safety Issues

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you Senator Markey and thank you Administrator Fernandez. I appreciate your being here today.

Administrator Fernandez, you lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is an agency inside the federal Department of Transportation that oversees the public transit systems across the country to ensure that they provide safe, reliable, and equitable service. I’d like to call on you now for a statement and then we’ll get to the questions that Senator Markey and I have.

Administrator Nuria Fernandez Opening Statement 

Senator Warren: Thank you very much. Thank you Administrator Fernandez. So, back in April, the FTA was so concerned about safety issues on the T that it initiated what I think you called a “Safety Management Inspection,” or SMI – because we’ve got to get a lot of acronyms in here today – and the idea was to get to the bottom of what was going on. And two months ago, you wrapped up your inspection and issued a report. Senator Markey and I have that report. The report is publicly available. And today what we want to do in part is walk through some of these findings.

But I think that most people in Massachusetts who may be watching this hearing today are not that familiar with the FTA’s work or its authority over state transit systems, so before we get to your report, I just want to start with the basics about what the FTA does and how you came to write this report.

The FTA engages in routine examinations and assessments of how public transit systems all across the country are doing, as I understand this Administrator Fernandez, but in the most troubling of cases, the agency will take a more active oversight role to ensure that issues are addressed, an unusual step forward. Does that sound about right?

Administrator Fernandez: Yes, that’s correct Senator. That is our role. 

Senator Warren: Okay.

Administrator Fernandez: We do take action when we need to take that action. 

Senator Warren: You don’t actually oversee the MBTA itself. Instead, you conduct oversight of the DPU, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which is the body that regulates the MBTA. Is that right?

Administrator Fernandez: Yes it is Senator.

Senator Warren: Okay and in other words, your job at FTA is to make sure that DPU is doing its job – and DPU’s job is to make sure that the MBTA runs a safe, reliable transit system. Is that about right? 

Administrator Fernandez: That is correct Senator.

Senator Warren: Good. You know, this is helpful because I want to talk about what happened at the T that got us to the point that the FTA had to step in and exercise more active oversight here in Massachusetts.

Your August report identifies two major reasons that the FTA undertook inspection. Number one, there was a clear safety problem on the T. And number two, there were big concerns about DPU’s implementation of reforms that FTA had been asking them to make for years.

So let’s do safety first, Administrator Fernandez. What did the FTA see in the T’s safety record that rang alarm bells for you?

Administrator Fernandez: Senator, we conducted this inspection as a result of a series of patterns that we had been observing and the frequency of the safety incidents that were occurring at the T. The patterns of train collisions, derailments, and then of course the fatality and also injuries, both to employees and and to the public. And those concerns were exacerbated by the fact that the Department of Public Utilities had not been carrying out their state’s safety oversight program.

Senator Warren: Okay so we’re going to come to that in just a minute. But, what I hear you saying – we’ve talked about trains catching on fire, property damage, service disruptions, injuries. We had a death. Your report says that the FTA launched its inspection because of an “escalating pattern of safety incidents and concerns,” including injury and fatality “significantly exceeding industry average.”  In other words, accidents happen all across the country in these T systems, but the question is how far out of line is the T here in the Boston area?

Between 2017 and 2021, the entire U.S. light rail industry reported 13 rail-to-rail collisions, resulting in 48 injuries. MBTA alone was responsible for more than a third of all of the collisions and for more than 90% of the associated injuries.

But it wasn’t just that the T was unsafe. It was unsafe—and not getting better. So you stepped in because there were serious concerns – you were about to talk about this a minute ago when I cut you off – serious concerns about the ability of the DPU—the agency responsible for overseeing the T—to improve the situation.

Administrator Fernandez, why did the FTA have concerns about DPU’s ability to perform oversight needed to keep passengers and MBTA employees safe?

Administrator Fernandez: Senator, going back to 2019, the Federal Transit Administration conducted an audit of the DPU’s State Safety Oversight program and we issued 16 findings. Nine were closed, seven are still pending and the reason that we have not closed the seven that are part of the corrective action plan is that the DPU has really not demonstrated a positive strategy for ensuring the outcomes of the MBTA’s safety responsibilities, that those outcomes are moving in a positive direction. The major issues that they DPU still needs to address is having an adequate workforce with safety experience and having that capacity. They need to ensure that their organizational resources are there to support the work that needs to happen in the field. And then also to ensure that the corrective actions, not only the ones that they are responsible for, but the ones that the T is responsible for completing are in fact achieving those outcomes of completion, reaching those milestones. 

Senator Warren: Okay, so the T’s safety record was worse than most of the transit systems across the entire country, and the agency that was supposed to be in charge of fixing things had failed to fix the problems or comply with federal regulations for years. Now, is launching this kind of inspection a common action that the FTA takes?

Administrator Fernandez: Senator, unfortunately it is not a common action, however, this is not the first time that we have done a safety management inspection.

Senator Warren: So how many have you done? Do you know?

Administrator Fernandez: One more.

Senator Warren: One more? So this is the second time –

Administrator Fernandez: Second time.

Senator Warren: – that the FTA has ever done one of these. Only the second time in the history of the FTA. So let’s talk for just a minute about what you found. There’s a lot in this report. I commend the FTA for its comprehensive analysis. I know you came and did on-site inspection, looked at all the records just at a very high level. Did FTA’s inspection conclude that MBTA’s current operations and policies are sufficient to keep riders and employees safe?

Administrator Fernandez: Our inspection revealed significant concerns about the T’s operations and policies. However, the T has made progress in meeting the timelines and responding to the items that we have flagged for them through our special directives that we’ve issued. So they continue to improve the safety culture that was of grave significance and concern to us initially. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done and we’ll continue working with them to ensure that they can get it done.

Senator Warren: Grave concern, but you are seeing some improvement. I want to ask you a similar question about the DPU, which is in charge of the MBTA. Administrator Fernandez, did the FTA inspection conclude that DPU was adequately fulfilling its oversight responsibilities at the MBTA at the time you undertook this?

Administrator Fernandez:  No Senator. We found that the Department of Public Utilities have not been adequately engaged in overseeing the MBTA’s Safety Management System (SMS) which is very important for the delivery of a safe system both for employees and for the riding public. The FTA’s report, as noted in our SMI, shows very specific actions that the DPU needs to do to support the field observations, the audits, and the inspections that MBTA’s rail transit system is undergoing so that they can identify safety deficiencies in the same way that we have identified those deficiencies. 

Senator Warren: Alright. I really appreciate this. You know, the people of Massachusetts have lived through these failures, but your report documents that the management failures are even broader and deeper than most of us knew and I’m grateful to the FTA for stepping in and documenting these failures. 

Administrator Fernandez, in my next round of questions, I’m going to talk to you in more detail about some of the directives the FTA has issued but I want to yield to Senator Markey to ask some questions.

Panel 1, Round 2: FTA Report Findings

Senator Warren: Thank you.  Actually I’m going to follow up from the same direction that Senator Markey has gone. You’ve made clear there’s been a failure of leadership at MBTA and DPU that has put riders and workers in peril. This needs to change. I'm thankful that you're there to work on this. But, we need to be honest about what these failures look like. So I want to just dig a little deeper into some of the management and operational failures, and why they rang alarm bells for the FTA. So, Administrator Fernandez, the FTA’s inspection found that the MBTA did not have policies in place to ensure that train dispatchers had the appropriate training and certifications to do the job and that they were properly rested before starting their shifts, so they literally did not fall asleep at the switch. Is that a major risk that the FTA thinks the MBTA needs to fix?

Administrator Fernandez: Yes, Senator, among other urgent risks.

Senator Warren: Okay, but that one is urgent. All right, let me ask you another one. Because this one's – according to your report, the MBTA has inappropriately stored dangerous chemicals in rail yards, which could put the safety of both workers and the public at risk. Is that a major risk that the FTA thinks the MBTA needs to address? 

Administrator Fernandez: Yes, Senator, that's a major risk, and we issued a special directive detailing the steps that they needed to take to mitigate that risk. 

Senator Warren: Okay. Since January 2021, the MBTA has reported five runaway train events that happened in rail yards or while the trains were receiving maintenance. Two of these runaway train events actually happened during the FTA’s inspection. So, Administrator Fernandez, do these multiple runaway train events pose safety risks for employees and the public that the MBTA urgently needs to address?

Administrator Fernandez: Yes, Senator, that is a major risk that the MBTA must address.

Senator Warren:  Alright. And, you know, there's much more that we could do in this. Your list of risks here is staggering: not collecting basic information to monitor safety concerns, a backlog of 16,000 open and pending defects in need of repair, a leadership with, “get it done and go,” mentalities so that it's about patching things up, rather than following the safety rules that are recommended. So I'm just going to do one more here. 

The FTA's inspection found that following changes Governor Baker made to reform the structure of the MBTA board, the DPU may no longer be legally and financially independent from the MBTA, as the FTA requires. So, Administrator Fernandez, this one is a little different from dangerous chemicals that are stored too close to the tracks or runaway trains. Can you explain why the issue of DPU independence raises concerns for the FTA?

Administrator Fernandez: Yes, it is a serious concern to the Federal Transit Administration because it is a requirement, under the law, that the State Safety Oversight Agency be both legally and financially independent from the entity that it is providing the oversight, and that it has jurisdiction to provide that oversight. So, in order to provide a proper oversight, the entity needs to be a step away from it so they can look in and make the, not only the findings, the recommendations and issue directives for mitigating risks. In our final SMI report, we noted that the organizational structure of the MBTA changed since 2019, and we have required actions from DPU to complete a legal assessment of how that organizational independence from the MBTA is going to be assured.

Senator Warren: Well, I just want to say thank you very much. I appreciate the in-depth inspection of the T that your agency has conducted. It is powerfully important to us, and I appreciate your listing so clearly both your concerns about safety and about a punch list for what needs to be done and what needs to be done urgently. I appreciate your partnership in all of these. Senator Markey, do you have some more questions you'd like to finish?

Panel 2, Round 1: Scope of Problems at MBTA and DPU

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you Mr. Poftak. So everyone who’s been paying attention realizes that there are big safety problems with the T. The string of dangerous and deadly incidents over the last two years rang the alarm bells. But even so, the findings of the FTA investigation of the MBTA and the Department of Public Utilities were shocking. The FTA found problems – in both agencies – from top to bottom. Mr. Poftak, you’ve been MBTA’s General Manager since January 2019, almost four years now. So the problems we’re discussing here occurred on your watch. I just want to read one of the FTA’s findings about the MBTA safety culture. I heard you say safety is our top priority. But here's what the investigation from the FTA found – I quote – "MBTA's executive management” – that's you – “does not consistently ensure its decisions related to safety risks are based on safety data, or documented facts." I nearly fell over when I read that. That is the bureaucratic way to say that your safety decisions are just made up. So Mr. Poftak, what led the FTA to make such a strong statement about your safety decisions and your leadership? 

MBTA Manager Steve Poftak: I think what they have called for with their special directives, and you see it marbled through a number of them related to safety management information, and, excuse me, safety communication, that we need to develop a more robust system of data analysis. Right now we have, for the first time, we initiated it last year, for the first time we do a monthly presentation of our safety data. However, much of it is backward looking, and one of the things they're calling for are more forward looking measures. And I think that's an area where we need to become more sophisticated. We are also, we have embarked for a long period of time on implementing a safety management system, one of the four pillars of that safety management system is risk, risk management, and assessment. And we are building, we have built up that capability in a safety department that has doubled in size since 2019, so that is an area I believe where we are making progress. The FTA's finding, I think, clearly signals that we need to make more robust project, and in fact lays out a series of steps by which we can do that. 

Senator Warren: So I just have to ask, though, how can we be nearly four years into your term, and you're just now deciding that you need to collect accurate data, and need to have a way to use that data to lay out meaningful safety plans going forward? 

MBTA Manager Poftak: I think that the safety review panel report in 2019 was a real turning point where we began to more aggressively pursue that. Again, I think the findings of the safety management inspection are a clear signal to us that we need more robust systems, and we need better data.

Senator Warren: Well, I'm hearing you say you have known you have a problem since 2019. And the FTA is saying, and that problem is severe and urgently needs to be addressed. Let me ask you about the action items on the FTA list. The list of necessary reforms that the FTA identifies is staggeringly long. It contains 53 specific action requirements. So that report came out in August, it is now mid October. How many of these action items have you completed to date?

MBTA Manager Poftak: We are still in the process of producing corrective action plans the way the–

Senator Warren: I get that, but you've got 53 items that need to be addressed. How many of them are now finished? How many are checked off the list?

MBTA Manager Poftak: I, I don't know that off the top of my head. What I will, what I was hopeful to explain was that we are still in the process of developing corrective action plans that we submit to the FTA, and then they either approve or they ask for additional information. So in fact, the last set of corrective action plans that are responsive to the special directives that you have laid out in front of you is actually due tomorrow. And we'll be, we'll be submitting it today.

Senator Warren: So does that mean none? That the whole list of 53 is still out there?

MBTA Manager Poftak: Not, not, no, not none. But I, I do not know that. 

Senator Warren: But you don't know the number?

MBTA Manager Poftak: I don't know the answer off the top of my head, and I would note that many of these corrective action plans are not sort of a binary flip the switch, they are a multi-year process of addressing the, addressing some of the issues, and we intend to take it very seriously and do a very thorough job of addressing it. So it, I'd love to be able to come in and get all 53 and say all 53 have been checked off. The nature of the work that needs to be done, is, is, is, is much, I would say much deeper and more detailed. And if you, if you were to do it in a short period of time, it would not be done properly.

Senator Warren: Well, you know, I take issue with some of this because I've read what these are. I think moving chemicals to a safer place is not something that should take place over a long period of time. This is a real safety risk. So let me ask the question, though, the other way. There are 53 action items that the FTA has identified as urgent safety concerns. By what date will you have these completed? I want the public to be able to rely on this. We want to be able to check this and have some real accountability.

MBTA Manager Poftak: We are still, we are still working that out with the FTA waiting for their approval on a number of these, so I can't, I, I can't put forward a date on something that the FTA hasn't signed off on.

Senator Warren: Well alright, let's assume they say this is the right approach. When are you going to have this done?

MBTA Manager Poftak: It, it, it truly varies from, from, from corrective action plan to corrective action plan.

Senator Warren: Well, are you going to get some of them done right away?

MBTA Manager Poftak: Yes, absolutely, we will get some of them done right away. I don't, again, I don't have a specific number off the top of my head. Some of them will take much longer. Some of them are, some of them will be multiple years in their execution.

Senator Warren: You know, I just want to make clear, making these safety changes is not optional. It's a matter of basic safety for your workers and for your riders. And that means that we need to see that these have occurred, and we need them out there where they're transparent where people can see them. So I just want to take a look here at your record, you're chair of, what we're doing on this. We need to get this information and we need to get it fast on this correction. Mr. Nelson, I want to take a look at your record. You're chair of the Department of Public Utilities, which has primary oversight of the MBTA. 

You've been at the helm since January 2019, almost four years, almost exactly as long as Mr. Poftak has led the MBTA. It is your job to make sure that the MBTA is doing its job, and you are failing. Again, according to the FTA, the DPU does not use its resources or its authority to effectively identify and address safety issues. The FTA concluded that – quote – "DPU has not demonstrated an ability to address MBTA safety issues and concerns." Translation: DPU is not capable of doing its job. So Mr. Nelson, let's break this down. When did you begin to understand the extent of the problems at the T.

DPU Chair Matthew Nelson: FTA conducted their audit in 2019, and we received the final report of that 2019 audit in December of 2020. We became aware of some of the findings of that report through draft conversations with FTA, where they highlighted things that they wanted us to address. So I would say in 2020, we started to find indications of where FTA was marking areas that DPU needed to improve.

Senator Warren: So I just want to make sure because you're the front line on, on oversight here. So you didn't realize that the T had any of these problems that the FTA documented for you until the FTA came forward at the end of 2020 and said, here are the problems. What were you doing in those first two years? This is your job, is to oversee the MBTA. Where were you?

DPU Chair Nelson: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that's a fair question. 

Senator Warren: Good. 

DPU Chair Nelson: And the answer to that question is the Department, when we took an assessment of the situation on the MBTA, we started to develop an, a hiring plan to bring more and new people into the unit, the Rail Safety Unit, in 2020, right? That's, we developed it in 2019 and we started bringing people in 2020. We had a management change in 2020 as well. I brought in a new director, and I have a new assistant director to take over that program. And we hired additional staff, we got up to I think 11 FTEs. Because I think one of the themes you're going to see throughout the entire FTA report is the department needs more of a presence to oversee all these activities and all these actions.

Senator Warren: So, so wait a minute, I just want to get the timeline straight here. So for two years, at the beginning, this is the 2019-2020. FTAs come in, they identify all these problems, you didn't even know any problems exist. Starting in December of 2020, you now say, okay, we see the problems, we've got the report from the FTA, so we start hiring people. Now, the problems obviously continued. The FTA comes in and in a matter of weeks, writes up a report that identifies at least 53 actions that the MBTA needs to take. Where were you during that second two year period?

DPU Chair Nelson: So, again, I think it's not that we weren't taking any actions. I mean, the department took a number of normal enforcement actions.

Senator Warren: Well, the FTA obviously thinks you not only didn't take action, but shown even capable of taking action. And I want to understand what you understand is why the DPU drew that conclusion? 

DPU Chair Nelson: Drew what conclusions?

Senator Warren: The conclusion that you're not doing your job and that you're not even capable of doing your job.

DPU Chair Nelson: I think that the, the answer to that question is, the department, in and of itself, needs to do more to oversee the actions that have happened on the MBTA. There were a number of, you, you've highlighted in your letter to me, there were a number of collisions and derailments that occurred that set off alarm bells at FTA and at DPU. We were on site on every one of those accidents. We've taken action on some of the green line speeding incidents that occurred that led to a passenger car colliding with another green line. And so we've been taking actions outside of the, out of the SMI.

Senator Warren: Obviously, you have not taken enough action.

DPU Chair Nelson: I'm not arguing that we have.

Senator Warren: And the FTA cannot come in and find the kinds of mistakes it finds if you had been taking action. And I just want to underscore this. If you can't identify what's wrong from the past five years, then how can anyone in Massachusetts have confidence that you're actually going to fix this going forward? You know, you are the chair, Mr. Nelson. So let me just ask about what's going on here. Your background experience is with natural gas and electric power divisions, nothing to do with transportation, is that right?

DPU Chair Nelson: I worked for the Department of Public Utilities in both the natural gas division and the electric power division, as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Senator Warren: Okay, and my question was nothing to do with transportation, is that right? 

DPU Chair Nelson: Correct.

Senator Warren: Correct. And Robert Hayden and Cecile Fraser are the other two commissioners, is that right? Hayden's primary experience with the department is in pipeline safety. And Fraser's background is in energy and utility industry, is that correct? 

DPU Chair Nelson: Yes, and she has a siting background as well.

Senator Warren: And neither has background in transportation, is that right? 

DPU Chair Nelson: That's correct.

Senator Warren: Okay, so none of you, none, has any experience in transportation or transit safety and oversight, is that right?

DPU Chair Nelson: In specifically transportations? That's not our background.

Senator Warren: Okay. I'm concerned, because I think part of the problem may be here that you don't understand what your job is. In your recent testimony to the legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation, you stated quote, "We are an auditing department" end quote. And you also said quote “We have done what we are required to do," end quote. You say you have no additional responsibilities here, but the Federal Transit Administration obviously sees this differently. In its report, the FTA said, quote, "While DPU has the authority to require MBTA to take expedited action to implement its SMS and address other safety concerns, the agency rarely invokes its authority to compel such action," which doesn't sound like they think your only job is as an auditor. So how do you reconcile your claim that you did the job you were required to do with the federal oversight agency's assessment that you did not?

DPU Chair Nelson: So, again, to those questions you were quoting, I think that when I was referring to, "We've done everything we were required to do," there's nothing that the FTA has asked us to provide that we have not provided. That was the context there. The DPU certainly, fundamentally, here is what I think the problem is. Our role is to oversee and regulate MBTA safety. We do that primarily through being in the field, observing their actions, making sure they have a comprehension, making sure people are trained, making sure people are working the hours they're scheduled to work, make sure that, that we can go on site both scheduled and unscheduled, ensure that we look at all the activities in the rail yard, that people are following the procedures. Historically, right, prior to 2018, the, the division was run in a reactive way where we wait for an accident, we would investigate the accident, analyze the root cause and ensure that whatever was the cause wasn't happening again. FTA rightly has changed to a proactive approach. The proactive approach is–

Senator Warren: Mr. Nelson, let me stop you there. If you're going to make the argument that you've been using this great proactive approach and changing from 2018, and since you came in in 2019, you're using a much better approach. You're not going to succeed with this argument. You are going to fail in this argument. The FTA has made clear: you are not doing your job. You know, look I appreciate that these are tough problems, and there are a lot of reasons why safety risks on the T have grown over time. But the only way out of this is with accountability, and leadership failures from top to bottom that don't acknowledge where the problems are and put real action plans in place, not just to fix these problems over some indistinct timeline into the future, but actually where you're holding yourself accountable to the public and saying we're going to get this much done by this date. If we don't have that, then we are not going to have a T that gets better, that gets safer, and one we can depend on. And that's just not acceptable. People of Massachusetts are entitled to better. Senator Markey.

Panel 2, Round 2: Consequences for Cities and Residents

Senator Warren: Thank you Senator Markey. So the persistent safety issues at the MBTA, and the failures of the MBTA leadership and DPU leadership to address them have a serious impact on hundreds of thousands of riders who depend on the T to get around the city, to get around the region, and on the T workers who work to make that possible. So I just want to spend some time talking about the consequences of the DPU and MBTA's failures for Massachusetts residents and communities. Mayor Wu, you are an orange line rider. So, from your experience riding the T over the last few years and where you sit in the mayor's office, how have this, the T's safety issues, what kind of impact have they had on commuters and on the city of Boston and the region generally? 

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu: Well, the most obvious and devastating impact is the injury and loss of life that has been highlighted and, unfortunately, not in, infrequent stories and, and situations, and this has been, as we've discussed, driven by a lack of safety, clear safety culture and decades of deferred maintenance, and vacancies and staff shortages that have pulled the existing hard working staff in multiple directions. Riders should not have to wonder when you're getting on the T in the morning to go to work, or trying to get home, whether there's a question of if you'll make it back to your family, and that has daily quality of life impacts for our residents when people aren't sure if they're going to get docked pay or are struggling to make plans or making important life choices about whether or not to stay in the region, whether companies can locate here. When we can't trust, when we, when our confidence is shaken, when ridership goes down, that means more traffic for everyone, that means the entire region is paralyzed. And so any question of safety hurts our residents and it hurts our economy. 

Senator Warren: Thank you. You know, we know that when public transportation systems break down, the burden does not fall equally on everyone throughout the region. Vulnerable communities are disproportionately harmed reduced, by reduced say, reduced service and extended delays. In fact, Mayor Wu, I think you've pointed out in the past that black bus riders spend 64 more hours, on average, on stalled buses every year than white bus riders. And this is why safe and reliable transit is so important for addressing economic inequality and racial injustices. Mr. Johnson, your organization, Transit Matters, has led the charge for convenient and equitable mass transit for metropolitan Boston. How have the MBTA and DPU's failures to adequately fund, manage, and oversee our transit system worsened transit access for underserved communities? 

Jarred Johnson, Executive Director, TransitMatters: Residents in under-resourced communities are more likely to be hourly workers or be in precarious employment and so the unreliability, the service cuts, and even the, the poor planning in relation to the orange line shutdown, literally took money out of the pockets of these folks and put some of them, and left some of them vulnerable to termination. And so you know, we also think about, you know, low income residents who use the bus to transfer to the subway, so they've been hit doubly hard by increased headways on both modes. And, you know, critically, as Mayor Wu mentioned, you know, the fear of, of unreliability or concern for safety has pushed a lot of people to, to drive. And so, for low income people, that means either higher costs or for bus riders, that means more traffic and longer bus commutes. 

Senator Warren: ... all the way through the system. So, the MBTA's and the DPU's failures to competently manage and invest in the T have left many families without safe and reliable transit. And if this incompetence continues, the T's going to see more shutdowns, more delays, more crowding, more derailments and potentially more accidents. Mayor Wu, you often talk about safe, reliable, affordable public transportation as the foundation for our shared prosperity and growth. What do you think we need to do to make sure that the MBTA equitably connects Bay Staters to the resources they need and to each other?

Mayor Wu: We need a clear vision, proactive, strong leadership, and the determination to get it done by prioritizing our communities, the riders and everyone who's impacted by the system. That means not just funding safety and maintenance and talking about why we can't do things or why we haven't, but really ensuring that we are pushing beyond that to the projects that need to get done, accelerating, building the credibility and faith in the system by looking to give clear commitments on where we're going to go and when we will get there. And so fundamentally, all of that, and I know the general manager has one of the most difficult jobs anywhere on the planet, and this is coming after decades and decades of getting us to this point. But there are still ways in which even today, changing the HR practices, really focusing in on hiring, we were proud to partner and help host a job fair on City Hall Plaza for the MBTA. But there are thousands of vacant positions that need to be filled. The wages need to be higher to attract people to those roles so that we can begin to chip away at the currently unacceptable wait times in headways.

Senator Warren: Thank you, I appreciate it. I think you're exactly right. This is about leadership. It's about vision, it's about having a plan. And then it's about executing on that plan and some real accountability for that execution. That's what people in Massachusetts deserve. Senator Markey, you have some more questions?

Panel 2, Round 3: Investing in the Future of the T

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Okay, so let's talk a little bit about the future. The FTA report does not cover either buses or commuter rail, but there's a lot of work to be done there as well. And with the right vision, the right leadership in place, we could make the overall system of the MBTA safer, more reliable, more equitable. Doing things like investing in bus and commuter rail electrification, expanding service, making sure everyone can afford to ride. 

So earlier this year, I met with the Environmental Justice Corridor Coalition, a group that was convened by Senator Brendan Crighton, and it includes state and local officials that represent Lynn, Chelsea, Revere, Everett and several of the North Shore communities. Our discussion focused on how this investment would improve service, how it could reduce long term maintenance costs, how it would help us meet our climate goals, support housing development, and address traffic congestion. It also would create new jobs, promote regional economic prosperity, and advance environmental justice. 

So Mr. Johnson, your organization has been one of the foremost advocates for electrification. You personally have studied electrification extensively and become an expert on this. Let me ask, how much would it cost for the T to electrify its commuter rail network?

Mr. Johnson: Well, with competent project management and using some of the same techniques from the last successful and relatively affordable electrification of the Northeast Corridor from New Haven to South Station, that estimated cost will be about between $3 and 5 billion. And so you know, yes, the upfront capital costs are higher than alternatives and diesel, but the long term savings and the benefits to communities in the environment are huge. It's also important to note, too, that many of the MBTA’s locomotives have a failure rate of every 5000 miles, which is about 25 times less reliable than even mediocre, electric multiple units. This is because electric trains have fewer moving parts and also many of the T's passenger coaches are outdated and a majority of the $10 billion state of good repair backlog is on the commuter rail system. So electrification isn't an add on, it is state of good repair.

Senator Warren: So more money up front, but bigger savings over a longer period of time. Right? 

Mr. Johnson: Absolutely. 

Senator Warren: And, you know, you got to pick your moments for making the big changes. Right now the Commonwealth has a substantial surplus. The Commonwealth is receiving – well actually – the MBTA is receiving $580 million in new federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for new projects. We've got the Inflation Reduction Act where money's coming in to try to help us move to green. Let me just ask, Mr. Johnson, how would investing in electrification boost the local economy and support historically underserved communities in Massachusetts?

Mr. Johnson: Yeah, electrification of the commuter rail system is key to the state's greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. Scientists have pointed out that even with electric vehicles, we cannot reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without dramatically reducing driving. Electrification of commuter rail would drive mode shift with faster, more reliable trains. And electrification also allows us to run more frequent service. Commuter Rail runs through many environmental justice communities, either without stopping or with fares that are too high, and electrifying the system, we must foreground equity. 

And this means adding stops in environmental justice communities, lowering the fares and ensuring that we have a diverse labor force that is modernizing that system. So again, if we're going to achieve the state's climate roadmap, and further equity, transportation has to be a key part of that. And it's also going to be critical to support the housing growth that we need to have in communities across the state. 

Senator Warren: Right. This is the moment you know, instead of continuing to pour more and more money into dirty, unreliable technologies from last century, we can actually replace broken down trains with electric ones, have more electric buses, cleaner for the communities that they go through and exactly as you say: add more stops, make sure it’s affordable, and it helps enrich the entire region. So does the T currently have plans for electrification, Mr. Johnson?

Mr. Johnson: So the T is working towards bus electrification. The T does need more capacity to accelerate this work. The bus garages themselves are a critical roadblock for electrification, but it can't stop there. Obviously, in order to have the system that we need to have in the future we need to work on electrifying trains. And for that, the T does not have a comprehensive plan. The T has blown past self imposed deadlines to begin working on commuter rail electrification and is instead pushing unproven and unserious solutions that will not deliver the full benefits of electrification. And critically, we know this because the governor strangely intervened in the legislature's bond bill to contradict the T’s own planning efforts.

Senator Warren: Right. You know, I have to say, on this, I'm very glad we're making progress on buses and electrifying buses. It's exactly the right thing to do, but I'm mystified why there's no plan in place to do the same with commuter rail. It would mean a faster, more reliable, and over time, a more cost efficient way to provide transportation. It's a win-win on so many levels. And we should be using this moment and the resources available to us to implement that vision. It would make a difference for generations to come. 

So Mayor Wu, I'm gonna do my last question with you. Would expanding T service to new parts of Boston and surrounding communities, help our city grow and help better serve families throughout the region?

Michelle Wu: Unequivocally yes. That question is music to my ears. For Boston to be a city for everyone, we are all in on being a green and growing region. And sometimes we see all the new growth and it's not enough. We need more affordable homes. The reality is Boston's population used to be even higher. Seventy years ago, we were over 800,000 people, and we want to get back to being able to have the infrastructure to support that equitably. But all of our decisions now, the planning that we're doing in Boston, the housing creation, the schools that we're investing in, it all hinges on being able to have a reliable, world-class public transit system. 

The T at its core is about investing in jobs and education and health care and housing for people who previously didn't have a way to reach that. And so I think we need to look to the previous maps that existed. You'll see former versions of plans had a much broader reach for the system. Even on many of our lines, the current endpoints were never intended to be the endpoints for those lines. And so we have to get back to that sense of ambition and possibility. And know that this would grow our economy, strengthen our communities, and really advance equity.

Senator Warren: Yeah, I very much appreciate your putting that vision forward. I want to thank both of you, you and Mr. Johnson, for your advocacy for the T and your leadership and your vision in this area. You know, we're talking about safety and these are terrible problems that must be remedied immediately, but we can't let that be the end of our ambitions. This is a moment when we can talk about expanding transit throughout the region. And there are so many advantages to doing this. And frankly, the costs are just too damn high if we don't do it. 

So we need to seize on this moment, with the leadership, with the vision, with the plan, with the resources to make the changes that will help us be the region we want to be. The Commonwealth we want to be in the 21st century. I want to thank you for being here and being part of this. Senator Markey, do you have any final questions you want to ask?

Senator Warren's Closing Remarks 

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you very much, Senator Markey, you're always a great partner in these things. You know, we held this hearing, because it is crucial to understand what has gone wrong so that we can remedy it, and move forward to something not just a little better, but a whole lot better. The people of the Commonwealth deserve a reliable transit system that works for them and works for their families. And to achieve that vision, we need new leadership from top to bottom. 

We need people with experience who will listen to the voices of workers and riders and other local partners. Senator Markey and I are committed to being good partners at the federal level and we will continue to fight for funding for transit, but the state has to use that funding responsibly. Ultimately, the governor has the authority and the responsibility to hold accountable the entire chain of command at the T. The current governor is leaving, but the incoming governor will have an opportunity to step up with a vision, a plan, and a willingness to hold T management accountable for turning that plan into a reality. 

If we truly commit to it, I have no doubt that the MBTA can once again be a leader in public transportation for our entire nation. I want to thank all of our witnesses for being here. Senator Markey and I want to hear from our Massachusetts constituents on the issues that we discussed today. You can go, anyone who wants to, can visit my website at warren.senate.gov to share your comments about these issues and they will be included in the official record of the hearing. Questions for the record are due one week from today, Friday, October 21. And for our witnesses, you will have 45 days to respond to any questions. So thank you again for being here. And with that, this hearing is adjourned. Thank you.