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DPU oversight should shift to MBTA advisory board, ex-transit leaders say

DPU chairman Matthew Nelson has defended the agency’s oversight role in recent legislative hearings. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald.)
DPU chairman Matthew Nelson has defended the agency’s oversight role in recent legislative hearings. (Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald.)
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Two ex-transit leaders are advocating for a stronger MBTA advisory board that could take over safety oversight of the T from the Department of Public Utilities.

Given its staffing shortage and current structure, the DPU is “in no way adequate” to deal with the challenges facing the T, said Fred Salvucci, a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation, during a Tuesday MBTA advisory board forum.

The DPU, which has been tasked with MBTA safety oversight for decades, was found to be ineffective in that role as part of a federal investigation into both agencies this summer.

“There are other places you could put it, but I think there’s a big role for expertise here,” Salvucci said. “I would take a hard look at putting it in the advisory board.”

“But whoever gets the responsibility, if they don’t have the funding to staff up, then you’re just setting up a fall guy,” he added.

Joe Aiello, a former chairman of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, agreed, saying that placing the responsibility in the hands of a stronger advisory board — which includes leadership from 172 MBTA communities — “would have merit.”

He noted the DPU was unresponsive when the FMCB commissioned the 2019 safety review panel report, which looked into MBTA operations, and was found to be “passive” about its oversight function again in the FTA’s final report.

Whatever entity takes on that role, Aiello said salaries need to be higher, like what’s seen with the MWRA and Massport, to ensure employees with transit safety expertise are hired and retained.

All three ex-transit leaders on the panel agreed that placing the oversight function in MassDOT would not be a good option, due to the secretariat’s direct line to the governor.

Dan Grabauskas, former transportation secretary and MBTA general manager, suggested that oversight could be assigned to a strong, but independent place in government, such as the inspector general or auditor’s office.

If that function were to remain with the DPU, Grabauskas said one solution could be a new appointee with a term limit, which would give that person the freedom to call out problems at the T that may be embarrassing to the next administration.

“That’s what we’re all really dancing around,” he said. “Here is how you make sure that the people we need to tell the truth can feel that they can do that without the interference of politics.”

A stronger MBTA advisory board was a common theme among the ex-transit leaders, who said it should regain its budget vetoing authority, which was stripped by the state legislature in 2009, to get T finances back on track and make better investments.

However, Andrew Bagley, vice president for policy and research at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, cautioned that the feds would still likely be the authority dictating MBTA spending for the next several years.

“They are going to have input in changes in both the operating and capital budgets predicated on their priorities they’ve established in the safety requirements,” Bagley said.

And if those directives aren’t met, the FTA can withhold federal funding from the T, he said.

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