MBTA Green Line

A passenger walks up the steps of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Green Line in Boston, Mass.

(The Center Square) – A veteran politician with expertise in the transportation sector did not mince words as he weighed in on the state of the embattled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority at a recent state legislative meeting.

“The current system is not working,” Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said last week as he offered four specific recommendations on getting the MBTA back on track.

LaHood met with members of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Transportation, which has been holding an ongoing series of hearings on the MBTA as a prelude to an upcoming final report from the panel that is due in December.

This year, the MBTA has faced mounting criticism for such mishaps as the July incident that resulted in one of the MBTA’s orange line trains catching fire on a bridge over the Mystic River, prompting passengers to smash windows as a mode of escape.

Chronic staffing shortages and deferred maintenance have been cited as some of the key reasons behind the continued challenges facing the MBTA.

Looking to 2023 and beyond, LaHood said the transportation committee’s work toward seeking short- and long-term solutions is well timed since there will be a changing of the political guard in short order. Neither Gov. Charlie Baker nor Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito are seeking reelection this fall.

The Federal Transportation Authority has been working with MBTA officials and other state authorities on the litany of issues that have built up within the operation over the years.

LaHood, who oversaw transportation at the federal level in former President Barack Obama’s first term in office, said the consensus has been clear about the MBTA from various outside reports and analyses – widespread changes across the organization will be necessary.

In his presentation to Massachusetts legislators, LaHood offered up several specific examples, many behind the scenes overtures that would not necessarily be readily visible to the public.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities currently has oversight of the MBTA as the state safety oversight, or SSO, agency. LaHood suggested unwinding the arrangement, citing concerns it impedes progress.

Instead, LaHood said an independent safety management agency could be better equipped to handle forward-looking issues within the MBTA.

State Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, asked LaHood for his big-picture assessment of how the Legislature should proceed in addressing the MBTA.

“Are we looking at a complete dismantling in Massachusetts to get this right – a complete reset rather than doing the same thing over and over again – or do we try and create that strong leadership?” Tucker said.

LaHood, in response, said there are multiple avenues the Legislature could take in the upcoming 2023 session, which begins in January.

“You’ve got to debate it – try and see what makes sense,” LaHood said. “If you want to start from ground zero, the timing is perfect for it.”

On the basis of starting from scratch with the structure of MBTA oversight, LaHood said, “If I was in your chair, I would think very seriously about doing that.”