Federal report cites MBTA for lack of rail maintenance plan
BOSTON — Repair divisions of the MBTA operate "somewhat independently" of one another in an agency that lacks a comprehensive rail maintenance plan, according to a federal review that also highlighted scheduling difficulties experienced by paratransit users.
The Federal Transit Administration's triennial review said the MBTA lacked a "comprehensive and overall maintenance plan for Heavy and Light Rail Transit," and determined different divisions performing work on third rail, signals, facilities and power and tunnel ventilation operate "somewhat independently" of one another.
Some of the deficiencies noted by the federal review, which has not yet been publicized by the MBTA and was obtained by the News Service, were already on officials' radar. A task force last spring noted the lack of a viable maintenance plan, and state transportation officials over the summer tallied $7.3 billion in backlogged spending needed to bring MBTA assets into a state of good repair.
Customers of The Ride have complained about scheduling difficulties before, and have supported the MBTA's proposal to offer some of the service through subsidized taxis or Uber cars, which can be summoned on demand rather than scheduled in advance.
The federal oversight agency, which has offices in Cambridge, identified other deficiencies in the MBTA's disadvantaged business program, which promotes opportunities for firms owned by women and racial minorities.
"They did find some items that they felt we needed to work on, and staff is working with them on a regular basis to address their concerns," MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told the News Service. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the triennial review — which involved site visits in September and October — is a draft document and responses are due in March.
Problems at the MBTA were brought into stark relief by the failures during last winter's epic snowstorms, and Gov. Charlie Baker has made improvement of the transit authority a focus of his administration.
Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee and a Mattapoisett Democrat, said the lack of a comprehensive rail maintenance plan is "the one that most calls out for immediate focus."
Steve Poftak, a member of the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board who has focused on the system's capital needs, said a comprehensive maintenance plans should be a "means to an end" to improve the T's state of good repair.
"It's going to take us a while to get there, but we want to do it in a thoughtful way," Poftak said. He said, "We don't want to just check the box and create the document."
Poftak said he shared others' concerns about the lack of a comprehensive maintenance plan and said the T has missed opportunities for proactive maintenance.
"We're not doing stuff that should be a layup — midlife overhauls of buses and vehicles. Everyone knows it needs to get done," Poftak said.
Since 2005, findings "similar" to that of the MBTA's lack of an overall rail maintenance plan have been made four times at the country's seven largest transit agencies, according to Federal Transit Administration Public Affairs Officer Steven Kulm. He said the similar findings have been made at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the Chicago Transportation Authority; and at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority twice.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said the MBTA has been "lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis," and has lacked the resources to fill both planning positions and positions directly involved in service.
"They've decided that when they're filling positions they're going to fill service positions," Regan said. "They can't afford to do both."
"I don't actually think it's that bad of a report," he said. Regan said he was most surprised that all of the vehicles used by the paratransit service called The Ride are "past their useful lives."
Three Ride contractors — Greater Lynn Senior Services, Veteran's Taxi and National Express — use 949 vehicles to provide service, according to the review. The vehicles are 2009 Ford buses, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
Some customers of the door-to-door paratransit service have roughly a half-hour window to speak to a scheduler after trips are set up for the following day, according to the review.
National Express offers a brief window between when the next day's scheduled trips are set and when the schedulers leave for the day. Automated calls are placed to riders after 7 p.m., the report said.
"The riders need to call the office if the time does not work for them and try to negotiate something else," the review said. "Unfortunately, at National Express the schedulers leave for the day at 7:30 PM so only a night dispatcher is available."
National Express, which deferred comment to the MBTA, services the southern portion of The Ride service area.
Carolyn Villers, executive director of Massachusetts Senior Action Council, supports a task force to seek more efficient production of paratransit service while keeping passengers' needs in mind.
"The Ride is a challenging service where people accept the challenges because they don't have much else in terms of choices," Villers told the News Service, noting that scheduling is one of those challenges. She said, "When there really is no alternative, people tend to put up with more."
Pesaturo told the News Service that the Ride "holds its contractors to an on-time performance standard higher than national benchmarks" and "does not allow any denials of service by contractors, except in the case of weather emergencies."
Pesaturo also noted The Ride "exceeds" the geographic requirement for paratransit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The review also found that the T has "capacity constraints," which mean Ride customers are unable to schedule a return trip "within two to three hours of their arrival at a destination even if they need less than an hour to conduct their business."
"The thing about The Ride is people are supposed to have the transportation opportunities that any other member of the public would have," said Straus. He said, "These kind of operational issues just call out for thinking in terms of a different way of providing this service so there is less of this scheduling whirl that gets in between a member of the public and the ride service performed."
Rafael Mares, vice president and director of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, said he is "optimistic" that the control board will address the major deficiencies identified in the report, but he believes the public "should be concerned" that the T's management did not publicize the report.
The control board has met nearly every week since its formation, receiving public presentations on the 62 percent of subway operating expenses covered by fares, a maintenance employee who worked more than 2,600 in overtime hours in 2015 and the factors that would cause the structural deficit to grow to $427 million by fiscal 2020.
The Federal Transit Administration's review is dated Nov. 24.
"This is one of a number of challenges we have seen facing the transit authority," Joseph Aiello, chairman of the control board, told the News Service about the report. He said, "You've seen changes and will see more."
Aiello said he had been briefed on the report and expects to "formally" take up the federal review in 2016.
• The MBTA has not been able to "sustain a full complement of staff to administer, monitor and assure compliance" of its disadvantaged business enterprise program. Four of the five program compliance officer positions were vacant. Prior triennial reports in 2009 and 2012 found the MBTA lacked "sufficient resources" to administer its disadvantaged business program. MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told the News Service the MBTA is "working on that."
• In addition to lacking an overall plan for Heavy and Light Rail Transit, the T has a need for a Comprehensive Bus and Rail Fixed Assets Maintenance Plan, and its rail Facilities Maintenance Plan amounts to a "good start" that was "written more as a goals and objectives document." The MBTA also lacks a vehicle maintenance plan for its paratransit fleet.
• No Americans with Disabilities Act improvement plan has been completed for Oak Grove Station even though an alteration project there "triggers ADA requirements."
• Boston Harbor Cruises, the contractor for ferry service, does not "describe the required maintenance activities on its vessels" purchased or improved with federal transit dollars. Astrid Glynn, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's rail and transit administrator, told the News Service the repair information was being recorded, but it was not "circulated" as fully as it should have been. "That is now being done," Glynn told the News Service.
• National Express Transit and Veteran's Transportation, two contractors for The Ride, did not meet the mandatory minimum random testing rates for substance usage, according to the review. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said "there is no issue with the testing itself," though reporting of the testing is "insufficient" as the employee headcount was not updated so it appeared as though an inadequate number of employees were tested. Pesaturo said a new policy has been submitted to the MBTA for approval. The minimum annual rate for drug tests is "25 percent of the number of safety sensitive employees," and for alcohol it is 10 percent, according to the review. The drug and alcohol program at National Express Transit "was last updated in 2005 and is out-of-date," the review said.
• For at least 11 months the MBTA did not respond to a bid protest from a rival vendor after the T awarded a $220,555 contract for 15-ton portable electric jacks. The other vendor claimed the winner did not comply with the Buy America requirement and manufactured its products in Germany. The protest letter was received Dec. 18, 2014, shortly before personnel changes in the legal department, according to the review. The letter was received "outside the prescribed protest time period," according to the November triennial review which said, "As of this date, MBTA has not responded to the protest letter, nor did they notify FTA of the filed protest."
• The Federal Transit Administration found no deficiencies with the MBTA's equal employment opportunity program, its spending on security, its reduced fare programs, or its financial management of FTA-funded projects.
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