Lawmakers should expect to consider legislation next year that would build a more independent MBTA oversight system, a senator said Thursday, claiming the Utilities Department’s existing approach was part of a “mass failure” that allowed it to do that T security issues fester.
After he and his colleagues spent several hours questioning current and former DPU officials about their work to keep the MBTA safe, Senator Mike Barrett said the Baker management agency hadn’t done enough to address it in recent years to show that she can fulfill this responsibility even if it “means doing it well”.
“I think the sand in the hourglass has probably run out,” Barrett, co-chair of the Telecoms, Utilities and Energy Committee, told reporters after the panel’s oversight hearing. “Bottom line, people used the system at their own risk. The current oversight by the Department of Public Utilities is part of this mass failure and I think it’s probably time to try a different institutional arrangement.”
During the next legislative session, beginning in January, the Lexington Democrat said he expects “at least one bill proposing a truly independent Transportation Safety Commission,” whose members would be chosen not only by the governor’s office but also by other officials.
Expanding the power of appointment could create “creative tensions,” Barrett said, and limit the chances that “a governor-appointed DPU and a same-governor-appointed MBTA will begin to view each other as sister agencies organized or living within.” same family.”
The committee’s vice chair, Rep. Jeff Roy, said he was undecided on whether the DPU should continue to serve as the designated state safety regulator for the T, or whether those duties should be moved elsewhere.
DPU officials “argued well” on Thursday that they can take responsibility, Roy said, adding that the department’s work to beef up its pipeline safety department after the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas blasts shows “they are succeeding.” this area.”
“I’d like to see if they can emulate that,” said Roy, a Franklin Democrat.
The DPU has come under the spotlight in recent months after a series of crises at MBTA, some resulting in injury or death, sparked a near-unprecedented investigation by the Federal Transit Administration. Completed FTA Investigator not only did the T suffer from significant safety deficiencies, but also that the DPU failed to fulfill its role as watchdog.
DPU officials on Thursday described their biggest concern as one familiar to employers in the public and private sectors: staff shortages.
Elizabeth Cellucci, director of the department’s transportation inspection division, told lawmakers her team has seven full-time employees, six of whom work in the field. She would like to hire another chartered accountant, another utility engineer and two more compliance officers, and DPU chairman Matt Nelson said the department is “in the midst of expanding the department and trying to invest in people.” .
But casting those roles was a challenge. Cellucci said that since she took on the role about two years ago, the office has had “continuous” job openings.
Part of the problem is the density of topics and the lack of a clear “feeder program”.
“It’s not something that appeals to most young people. They want to do something different that has to do with IT or marketing or biomedicine,” Cellucci said. “It’s not something that a boy with a bachelor’s degree says, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a railroad safety expert.’ “
Another important factor is compensation. While Nelson and Cellucci didn’t provide specific numbers, they said the DPU frequently loses staff to the MBTA or the utilities it regulates, which offer better pay and perks like signing bonuses.
The T can pay more, Nelson said, because they have the “operating budget and operational flexibility that an entity that essentially runs a public utility gives them.”
“I’ve been working on this well before the (FTA investigation) in 2022, and I’ll tell you it’s hard,” Nelson said. “It’s really difficult to hire railroad safety people, especially when we’re competing with MBTA, which pays far more robust salaries.”
One pressure point that Nelson doesn’t see as a factor in the DPU’s struggles over road safety is government funding.
“We have the money. I’m not asking for any money,” he said. “Federal grants have given us money to spend. We want to spend it on individuals and potential advisors.”
Nelson said the DPU’s efforts to increase pipeline safety in recent years could serve as a template for its further work on transit safety. At one point, the department’s pipeline safety division had “under 10” workers, he said; Now this office has about 35 employees.
A new transportation safety regulator could potentially offer more competitive pay packages and achieve greater hiring success, Nelson said, but warned that outsourcing these responsibilities under the DPU umbrella could present other challenges. An independent office would need its own support services such as human resources and IT, which Nelson says may not make “good sense”.
In Barrett’s view, removing T-Security from the DPU’s purview would not only be a response to the department’s past mistakes — it would also, he said, free up resources at the DPU to adapt at a time when Massachusetts was a Transformation seeks to focus on climate policies of its energy consumption and aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“No one asked the governor if he was too busy to deal with all the issues in the state,” Nelson replied when asked if he could balance those issues. “The department is fully efficient and has very competent department heads like Ms. Cellucci who lead every single part of the department.”
One of Nelson’s predecessors made it clear Thursday that she does not share optimism that the DPU can continue to assume MBTA oversight.
Ann Berwick, who was chair of the DPU from 2010 to 2015, told lawmakers that she felt another agency should take on the job as “road safety will always be a stepchild of the DPU”.
Berwick said she knew during her tenure that T-security was part of the department’s responsibility, but acknowledged she hadn’t done enough.
“I managed it inadequately because my focus and dominance of my staff, the number of employees, was focused on electricity and gas supply, tariff setting, related energy issues and now, after my resignation, has been focused on the climate by statutory mandate, She said. “When I was chairman, there were never more than, I don’t know, eight, nine, probably less, transportation security staff out of a total of 160. So I don’t think the DPU under my leadership was an adequate administrator of transportation.”
Nelson’s appearance on Thursday was his second before a legislative body exercising its oversight authority in the wake of the FTA report. Last month, he said the transport committee The DPU will “have to do more” to meet its MBTA security obligations while defending its position as an auditor rather than a high-profile whistleblower.
During Thursday’s hearing, US Senator Elizabeth Warren announced that she will convene a federal hearing in Boston next Friday to examine “management failures” at the DPU and MBTA and the economic impact of inadequate transit maintenance and oversight. FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez has confirmed that she will testify at the Oct. 14 hearing at the JFK Federal Building.
FTA officials previously declined to testify at the Transportation Committee’s legislative hearing, saying they were barred from attending “trials.” draw anger by Committee Co-Chair Rep. William Straus.
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