BOSTON (SHNS) – The eastern Massachusetts commuter rail network and its hundreds of thousands of riders would no longer be the responsibility of the MBTA under safety and management reforms targeted by the House’s transportation chief.
Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee that last year held oversight hearings examining the widespread problems at the T, filed legislation that would scale back the agency’s scope with a goal of tightening its focus on the core subway and bus service.
His proposal has already drawn muted reviews from public transit advocates, who argue that Beacon Hill’s focus should be on resources made available to the T instead of the transportation governance flowchart. The transit agency is in the midst of a major hiring effort but has had trouble filling positions.
In Straus’s view, the deteriorating conditions at the MBTA in recent years — which range from persistent service cuts prompted by staffing shortages to the death of a passenger trapped in a malfunctioning Red Line train door — all point toward a similar conclusion: the agency is stretched too thin.
“We ask too much, and therefore expect too much, from the T,” Straus said. “It’s a sprawling organization that, when you compare it to either other parts of state government or similar kinds of systems around the country, for good reason, pretty much no one else handles it the way we do.”
A bill Straus filed (H 3452) would, among several other reforms, reassign authority over the commuter rail from the MBTA to the state Department of Transportation.
That shift, he said, would leave the T to focus on subway and bus service in the metropolitan Boston area, a mission Straus described as distinct from the traditional commuter rail approach to “move people into a city in the morning, out at the end of the day.”
The MBTA for years has contracted out operation of commuter rail lines, most recently and currently to French company Keolis Commuter Services. Although Keolis drew criticism earlier in its original $2.69 billion, eight-year contract, the Baker administration and MBTA oversight board in 2020 moved to extend the agreement with the company through June 30, 2025, or June 30, 2026, depending on when state officials want to select a successor. That timeline means the MBTA will have to juggle that contract choice with its subway and bus network management.
“It’s got different capital needs, it serves a different daily transportation function, and it’s been run outside the MBTA anyway, so let’s just call it for what it is,” Straus said of the commuter rail system.
Straus said his proposal would keep Keolis in place until the end of its contract extension, then effectively assign the decision for the future of commuter rail operation — and the potential next contract — to MassDOT instead of the T.
The bill would also carve out the Fairmount Line as an exception and retain it under MBTA control. That line sometimes referred to as the “Indigo Line,” starts and ends entirely within Boston, serving communities with limited access to other rapid transit options.
A separate bill Straus filed (H 3449) would allow a group of municipalities to form their own regional port authority and operate water transportation in place of the MBTA, which runs a handful of ferry routes linking Hingham and Hull to Boston.
Straus has been publicly grappling for months with whether state government should narrow the MBTA’s mission. In July, when the Transportation Committee kicked off its oversight probe into the high-profile safety debacles, Straus said it might be worth offloading some transit responsibilities to other agencies “for the sake of the overall transportation system.”
“My goal is, and I know I’m repeating myself, a T that focuses on getting people back and forth, and they’re pulled in too many directions,” he told the News Service. “Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, the T was, in essence, also a construction company. It isn’t anymore. Whatever that talent pool was is long gone, and we’ve got other agencies — Mass Highway is a good example — that today take on and I think do a pretty good job of the construction needs in transportation.”
His bill also calls for creating a working group “to produce a proposal and framework necessary” to reassign safety oversight of the MBTA from the Department of Public Utilities to another agency, such as the office of the inspector general.
The DPU is the designated state agency responsible for providing an outside review of the T but came under fire in the past year after federal investigators warned the department was falling short of its oversight duties.
Straus said he would not necessarily oppose the DPU — which is trying to bulk up its rail safety division — retaining oversight duties so long as an underlying “resource issue” gets addressed.
“If it stays within DPU, if it goes to the IG, if it goes to anybody else, the fundamental issue here is that the staff resources are supplied so that when issues come up, you can jump on them,” Straus said. “The reason I proposed the IG is we clearly saw, in our committee’s oversight last year, that at least the way the Baker administration was looking over the shoulder at DPU to the point where they were coordinating press releases, you clearly had a failure of management in terms of an independent safety oversight.”
After steering hundreds of millions of dollars to the T last year to help with mandatory fixes ordered by Federal Transit Administration investigators, top Democrats in the House and Senate have not specified additional actions they plan to take this term to address the intertwined crises at the T.
There’s no guarantee that Straus’s bill will win support from his colleagues, though it does offer an early indication of where one of the top deputies to Speaker Ron Mariano has directed his attention as commuters across the greater Boston region grapple with unreliable, infrequent transit service.
His proposal, however, landed with a thud among a couple of prominent advocates.
TransitMatters Executive Director Jarred Johnson described Straus’s plan to shift commuter rail management from the MBTA to MassDOT as “a very expensive deck chair-moving operation.”
He pointed to the 2019 “Rail Vision” study that prompted former MBTA board members, including then-Chair Joseph Aiello, to call for electrifying the commuter rail system and running more frequent service in a top-to-bottom transformation.
“This sounds like going in exactly the wrong direction,” Johnson said. “It just goes against everything that the Rail Vision committee did and goes against the spirit of what the previous board chairman was talking about when he said commuter rail spends too much money for too little ridership. I don’t see how that would get better by further divorcing it from the MBTA.”
While the entire MBTA and many other transit agencies struggle to bring riders back, commuter rail has been a bright spot. Total ridership on the commuter rail in the first half of fiscal 2023 was nearly 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, significantly outperforming the core subway system and nearly matching the recovery rate of the bus network.
Johnson attributed part of that success to a spring 2021 overhaul of the commuter rail schedule that MBTA officials embraced, moving to more even intervals between trains.
MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane, whose group represents cities and towns that host T service and help fund the agency, said he thinks the state would be better served by giving the MBTA even more leeway, not less.
“As we look to bring more services together and allow greater connections between passenger trains, regional rail trains, commuter trains, light rail, heavy rail, ferries, bus, etc., I think it makes the most sense to have one entity operating all of those as opposed to a scattering,” Kane said.
Both Kane and Johnson argued that the debate over whether the T should continue to be in charge of the commuter rail contract fails to address the primary problems behind the agency’s woes: financial uncertainty and leadership churn.
The agency has been able to lean on massive tranches of one-time federal and state aid in recent years, but its budget writers project they will fall hundreds of millions of dollars per year short on the operating budget starting as soon as fiscal 2025.
“I’d also like support from the Legislature. They’re the only folks who can come up with a long-term, sustainable source of capital funding, so that to me seems to be the most important thing,” Johnson said.
“Governance and organizational structure is not the problem,” said Kane. “While legislation is probably needed in some areas of the T, whether it’s the MassDOT board or the T board that oversees a commuter rail contract, from the rider’s perspective, they just want the train to work. They just want the station to be clean and safe. The T has not had the resources to do that for 30 years, and that’s the underlying issue as far as I’m concerned.”