The MBTA will be running some of its subway lines at reduced-service weekend levels every day through the summer as it tries to address a staffing shortage that federal monitors said is a safety risk, and the agency launched a "hiring blitz" this week to staff up as quickly as possible.
Insufficient staffing at the T's operations control center, where dispatchers monitor and manage the movement of vehicles through the subway system, was one of four significant areas of concern highlighted last week when the Federal Transit Administration ordered the T to take immediate action to respond to issues found during a probe of the agency's safety. The FTA found that dispatchers in April were regularly required to work 16-hour shifts and sometimes 20-hour shifts followed by only four hours off.
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The T scaled back service on its Red, Orange and Blue Lines so it would not stretch its existing number of dispatchers too thin. The service cuts were the primary topic of the public comment voicemails that the MBTA Board heard at its meeting Thursday and T General Manager Steve Poftak gave the board a rundown of the steps the T is taking to address the FTA's concerns.
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"The central message I want to get out is that safety is a priority here at the MBTA. We have viewed the safety management inspection as a process to have a really extensive review of our practices here at the T and, to the extent that we have deficiencies, to be able to address them. And I think we are appreciative of what the FTA has pointed out and we are aligned as an organization, and we have put not only our significant internal resources in terms of organizing ourselves around each one of these directives to address them in a timely manner," Poftak said. "I hope you've taken away from this conversation that we are not waiting, we're not waiting to submit [corrective action plans] and get them back from the FTA before we take action. We are taking what we believe are the necessary actions now."
Poftak said six prospective dispatchers attended a "meet and greet" at the T's operations control center Wednesday and that there are 12 other applicants within the T's "pool," which he said is "essentially heavy rail operators." He said the T is also exploring other options, like bringing back recent retirees or "short-term third-party augmentation to our staffing."
"We're working hard to attract new people to the position, but I think we're also working hard to make the position attractive by limiting the number of hours, trying to have schedules that are less demanding than they were before," Poftak said. "We're hopeful that this job is attractive to people and we're also expending resources here, we are in the process of putting in place a $10,000 signing bonus. So this is one that we take quite seriously."
Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler pointed out that some of the actions the T is contemplating might require authorization from the MBTA Board and suggested that Poftak might want to request a special meeting of the board before its regularly scheduled July meeting. Poftak agreed and said he was likely to do just that.
"I just want to stress the sense of urgency around those. If you need anything for approval from us, that we don't wait to our scheduled July meeting and we could always have a special meeting to move things more promptly," Tesler said. He later added, "If you have the authority under our bylaws to do it, do it and don't wait for us. On the inverse, if you need us — and I don't want to, I think I just may be speaking for everybody else, but I don't want to speak for everybody else — for me, this is the most important thing and a sense of urgency. We need to correct this as quickly as possible. ... When you need the board's support, either financially or contract-wise, we're at your disposal."
It's likely that the T's response to the FTA's directive around operations control center staffing will be the subject of a handful of meetings. The chair of the board's Safety, Health & Environment Subcommittee said Thursday he would like to hold a special subcommittee meeting to hear about the T's actions in greater detail and MBTA Board Chair Betsy Taylor said that she expects an update from Poftak at the board's next meeting.
Poftak also reported to the MBTA Board on Thursday that bus system ridership has been hanging at about 70 percent of the 2019 baseline level, or about 280,000 weekday riders on average, and that the commuter rail system is averaging about 70,000 riders per weekday. Poftak also said that subway ridership last week — the last week before the reduced service levels took effect — hit a new COVID-era high point with an average of about 259,000 riders per weekday.
"This does not currently show the impact, potential impacts, of the decreased level of service and that is obviously something we're going to watch very carefully," he said.