Safety first, but MBTA can’t forget the big picture of transportation

The Federal Transit Administration’s harsh new report on the MBTA essentially concludes that the T has focused too much on capital spending and not enough on repairs and maintenance. The end result: a system with a higher rate of reportable safety occurrences and derailments than rail systems across the country “and the total rail industry average.”

It is serious. Safety must be the priority, both to maintain current traffic and to increase it. People with a choice won’t take the T if they think it’s dangerous, and those with no choice certainly deserve a ride that’s not life-threatening. But while they tend to address immediate security needs, state transportation officials can’t overlook the big picture of transportation in Massachusetts. The FTA report cannot become a justification – or an excuse – to distract from the long-term capital projects that are also needed to develop and improve the system. Like any healthy business, a healthy T should be able to do both. This requires proper investment, good management, and careful evaluation of which projects should be at the top of the list.

Governor Charlie Baker is asking the Legislature for $200 million to meet security guidelines outlined in the FTA report and $10 million for a training academy to help with hiring. The MBTA also plans to open a new office called the Office of Quality, Compliance and Oversight. That’s good, but it’s not the ultimate answer to the problems highlighted in the FTA report.

For example, the FTA report notes that last January, MBTA’s management team and board of directors shifted $500 million from MBTA’s operating budget to the capital budget. The aim was “to build a path to increased capacity, safer and more reliable passenger service and better repair through an aggressive program of capital projects”. Meanwhile, the T’s aging assets and infrastructure continued to deteriorate and fail. According to this report, the July train fire on the transit bridge over the Mystic River was caused when a rusty sill panel fell off a train and came into contact with the third rail. As the report notes, the combination of overstretched staff and aging assets has created an overstretched organization that suffers from a lack of training and supervision and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting the demands of capital projects rather than passenger operations, preventive maintenance and safety. A single $200 million solution cannot solve all of this.

Since Baker is not seeking re-election, it will be up to the next governor to come up with a plan that protects the current system while looking to the future. Perhaps the first thing to do is get all the transport dreamers and planners in one room and ask them to come up with a list of the top five things they would like to see happen. Completing the Green Line extension and completing the delayed Red Line trains would surely be on this list. But there are other projects that could perhaps be put on hold for a year, just to give the T a chance to get back on track. Meanwhile, a new governor will take office in January and will likely bring in his own transportation secretary and MBTA chief executive.

While this FTA report is comprehensive, there’s really nothing shocking about its findings. What had been predicted for decades has come true. Underinvestment and taking money out of one budget and reinvesting it in another has contributed to a mess in public transit. So now the question is, what will the MBTA do about it? Will it be the same, or will the new leaders of the state find a way to keep the system in good shape, while building for the future? The future health of Greater Boston’s economy depends on the answer.

Editorials represent the opinions of the Editorial Board of The Boston Globe. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

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