Transportation chief sheds some light on RMV troubles

Boston Statehouse

Transportation chief Stephanie Pollack told a House oversight hearing on Tuesday that her agency does “not have anything that we are trying to hide.” [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]

(SHNS) – A day after lawmakers cut short her chance to testify on a scandal at the Registry of Motor Vehicles because key witnesses did not show, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told a different group of legislators that officials went through a lengthy process to implement software now being scrutinized.

Pollack answered a range of questions on MBTA infrastructure, long-term budget plans and the RMV scandal for more than two hours at a House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets hearing Tuesday, convened to examine capital spending at the Department of Transportation.

Asked how the records-keeping software could have missed a notification from Connecticut that a West Springfield driver should have had his commercial license suspended before he allegedly caused a crash that killed seven, Pollack said an outside review is ongoing and walked lawmakers through a timeline of how that software was installed.

Officials canceled the first contract after a different vendor ran late and over-budget with little to show for it, she said, and the new ATLAS system was implemented in March 2018 — the same month, officials have previously said, that RMV employees appear to have stopped processing paper warnings from other states about driver violations, allowing tens of thousands to build up in a storage room.

Pollack said staff were “doing two things at once” as they implemented the software because the RMV was at that time also switching over to comply with federal REAL ID regulations.

“A lot of what was going on last spring that some people may think had to do with the (ATLAS) software — some of it did, but some of it had to do with an entire new system that we had to train all our people and, honestly, train our customers,” she said.

At one point, Pollack said transportation officials “do not have anything that we are trying to hide.”

Pollack’s answers, which repeated much of the information RMV officials have included in interim status reports, came one day after she was scheduled to testify at a Transportation Committee oversight hearing dealing specifically with the registry.

Two RMV employees lawmakers believe are key to understanding the records failure did not show up. Pollack also told the committee she and Acting Registrar Jamey Tesler could not discuss in depth circumstances at the registry that led to the breakdown without tainting an ongoing audit ordered by the Baker administration.

Frustrated by the lack of participation, Transportation Committee members voted to delay its hearing and return once it could compel testimony, perhaps even by asking another committee to issue subpoenas.

Tuesday’s hearing focused on far more than the RMV. Pollack and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak presented each agency’s five-year capital plan — $8.2 billion of spending planned for the T and $18.3 billion for MassDOT as a whole — outlining plans approved through the 2024 fiscal year.

While several members of the committee praised Pollack and Poftak for the work, they also aired frustrations with existing services and cited lengthy individual commutes to the State House. At least two members referred to transportation infrastructure as in a “crisis.”

“While we move forward on big projects like South Coast Rail and the Green Line Extension, we cannot lose sight of these existing day to day needs on the current network,” said Rep. Antonio Cabral, the committee’s chair. “If we don’t make it practical for commuters in New Bedford or Springfield, our economy will stall.”

Their remarks underlined a key tension: long-term plans offer little comfort for commuters facing disruptions right now.

“For the constituents that I represent, the urgency is palpable,” said Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat. “I think when I came into office, it felt like we were facing a transportation crisis. Really, over the past year, it’s started to feel like we’ve progressed almost into an emergency situation for constituents who are losing confidence in the MBTA, who are frustrated with the gridlock we face in Cambridge and Somerville.”

Pollack and Poftak also reiterated Gov. Charlie Baker’s pledge to release a congestion study by the end of the month and a major transportation bond bill for debate this session.

They also stressed that they understood the concerns but that significant investment has been made to improve conditions. While a cause of last month’s Red Line derailment that continues to cause delays is still not known — though Poftak said it was “a matter of weeks, not months” — plans to replace every car on the Red Line with higher capacity models that can run more frequently are in place, Pollack said.

“We are not building the same Red Line,” she said. “We are building a Red Line that will carry 50,000 more people and be able to come along every three minutes at rush hour. And not only is every penny of that paid for, every contract necessary to build it has already been let.”

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