Gov. Charlie Baker pushed back on criticism Thursday that the MBTA kept plans for a Federal Transit Administration safety management inspection under wraps, arguing federal officials were the ones in control of making the inspection public — not the MBTA.
The federal inspection followed the April death of Robinson Lalin, who was dragged about 105 feet to his death after he got caught in the door of a Red Line car at Broadway Station, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
In an April 14 letter to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) official said the agency “is extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues at the [MBTA]” and would conduct a safety management inspection of the MBTA’s transit operations and maintenance programs. The existence of the letter and the inspection were first reported nearly a month later in the Boston Globe.
Baker said Thursday the FTA was clear that they wanted to be the ones to talk about the safety inspection when they thought it was appropriate — not the MBTA.
“If the FTA says to the T, we are engaged in an investigation and, as your overseer, we do not want you speaking publicly about it until we finish our investigation and we decide what we’re going to say. You know, you need to follow that guidance,” Baker said.
He added, “The FTA is the public entity that makes the call with respect to how to speak about what their plans are and what they’re up to and not the MBTA.”
An FTA spokesperson said the FTA “never instructed MBTA officials regarding discussion of the FTA safety management inspection and the April 14 letter.”
“The SMI process has been transparent and once findings and recommendations to improve the safety of the T are concluded, they will be made public,” the spokesperson told MassLive. “FTA is focused on working directly with MBTA on the Safety Management Inspection. It was always expected that a public assessment would come from the SMI.”
MBTA officials did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked by reporters earlier this month why the MBTA did not disclose the inspection, Poftak said the agency was not thinking about it “from a public relations strategy,” the State House News Service previously reported.
“We had already begun internally to address the findings in the letter. This board talks about safety more than any other board and it would have been presented in the normal course of business,” Poftak said.
Officials at the MBTA and Baker have said they welcome the FTA’s inspection of the transit agency and have pledged to make safety a top priority. Board Chair Betsy Taylor said safety must remain a continued focus of staff efforts and the organization’s investments at a Thursday morning Board of Directors meeting.
“While many thousands of people ride the T safely each day, too many tragic accidents have occurred of late,” Taylor said. “For this reason, the board and I welcome the findings of the FTA and the comments and suggestions of other parties.”
In addition to Lalin’s death, the National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report cited “ongoing safety issues” at the MBTA. An escalator malfunction in September 2021 that led to nine injuries occurred days before a Red Line train derailed at Broadway Station. A July 2021 crash between two Green Line trains left 27 people injured and prompted a criminal investigation by then-Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
Baker said the safety management inspection is focused on the MBTA’s rapid transit system, not the commuter rail or bus network.
“And the tragedy that prompted this can only be described as a tragedy,” he said. “And the FTA, if they bring what I would describe as a national view to this stuff, I think that’s good and I look forward to hearing what they have to say.”
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