Massachusetts lawmakers returned to the thorny topic of MBTA safety on Wednesday and as they kicked off their latest oversight hearing, one top Democrat is frustrated that federal investigators "chose not to help" his panel.
The Transportation Committee's second MBTA oversight hearing was set to feature testimony from MBTA Board Chair Betsy Taylor, Department of Public Utilities officials and frontline workers. But like they did at the first hearing in July, representatives from the Federal Transit Administration -- who on Aug. 31 published a 90-page final report about problems at the T -- declined an invitation to attend.
Federal intervention this year appears to have hastened safety improvements at the MBTA and prodded the Legislature and the Baker administration to suddenly fast-track hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to help turn around the struggling transit agency.
FTA Chief Safety Officer Joe DeLorenzo told state lawmakers the U.S. Department of Transportation "restricts employees' participation in 'legal proceedings,'" an argument that Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus said Wednesday he does not buy because the cited regulations give the FTA "discretion."
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"I don't understand why they're not going to help us now," Straus said. "They are not forced to hide from us. They chose not to help us. I think that's unfair to the public and employees of the T, who are ultimately the beneficiaries of a safe public transit system. The FTA has done great work in the amount of activity they conducted in coming up with the review, which was recently released."
"I'll note, ironically, they were happy to make themselves available to take questions from reporters at a press conference, but not us. Our questions, I guess, are out of bounds," the Mattapoisett Democrat added.
Straus said he hopes "those who may have influence over the bureaucracy at the FTA in Washington may be able to coax them to rethink," looking ahead to additional hearings the panel plans to convene.
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The hearing comes just five days before the Orange Line is scheduled to reopen for service after its 30-day closure. The MBTA said Tuesday that work is 82% complete.
One lawmaker said he expects the FTA will require the state to spend billions on the T. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, who won't be participating in Wednesday's hearing, has told NBC10 Boston that the T needs $1.5 to $2 billion every year to modernize the system.
"I take a constructive approach to all these oversight hearings," Poftak said. "We will watch with great interest. Our board chair will be participating in the hearing. MBTA management will not be participating in this hearing."