Investment plan

MBTA board approves $9.6 billion investment plan amid federal security inspection

Amid an ongoing Federal Transit Administration safety inspection, the MBTA Board of Directors on Thursday approved a five-year, $9.6 billion capital investment plan that outlines more than 500 projects throughout the transit system.

The plan provides nearly $2.4 billion for new vehicles, including double-decker commuter rail cars, new Red and Orange Line trains, and hybrid and electric buses.

About $2.2 billion will go towards projects that include replacing lanes and signals, expanding the network of dedicated bus lanes as well as safety improvements to the Green Line. More than $1 billion will be spread over 87 passenger facility projects focused on improving accessibility, replacing elevators and modernizing platforms.

In fiscal year 2019, the MBTA reported spending an unprecedented $1.9 billion on capital projects and set a goal to spend $2 billion in fiscal year 2022. The T expects to spend at similar levels in fiscal year 2023.

Matthew Petersen of advocacy group TransitMatters said the T needed to do more than spend. He would like the agency to improve the way it communicates with users about how they will benefit from capital investments.

“The goal of a capital program shouldn’t be to spend money,” Petersen said. “The goal of a capital program should be to invest in and improve service.”

Brain Kane, executive director of MBTA’s advisory board, hailed the capital investment plan as a “great starting point.” But he expressed concerns about affordability, citing the T’s plan to borrow money to pay for upgrades.

Kane said the T was $7.6 billion in debt and planned to borrow an additional $600 million each year. The agency plans to use money from its operating budget — between $200 million and $300 million — to pay down debt.

“That’s money that’s not being spent moving people on buses, trains, subways and paratransit vehicles, ferries, etc.,” Kane said.

He called on the transit agency to be aggressive in applying for federal grants and said the state legislature should allocate more funds to the T.

The five-year investment plan includes about $7.5 billion for security-related projects, which has been a problem for the T. Over the past year, a series of incidents have resulted in injuries and even deaths.

These incidents prompted the FTA to conduct a safety inspection of the T. In an April letter to T’s chief executive, Steve Poftak, the federal agency expressed extreme concern about “ongoing safety issues at T and said that it “remains unclear what actions the MBTA Board and management team are taking to prevent and address system security breaches.”

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak speaks to the media at a news conference announcing increased service on the Fairmount Line at the Talbot Avenue commuter rail station. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Poftak said Thursday that the agency has had “an extensive series of interviews” with FTA officials and is now “in the midst of a number of site visits.” An FTA inspection report will likely be released this summer, Poftak said.

“It’s really an opportunity for us as an organization to learn and get a thorough assessment of where we can do well in terms of safety,” Poftak said. “But I think more importantly, where we have a deficit and need to improve our processes.”

The FTA intervention follows a fatal incident in which Robinson Lalin, 39, was dragged to death after his arm caught in the door of a Red Line train. Preliminary reports from the National Transportation Safety Board and the MBTA revealed that a short circuit in the gate control system allowed the train to move even though it was obstructed. The car involved in the incident was over 50 years old.

MBTA Board Chair Betsy Taylor said that while “thousands of people ride the T safely every day, too many tragic accidents have happened lately.”

“The Board and I welcome the findings of the FTA and the comments and suggestions from other parties,” Taylor said. “We will do everything in our power to implement these recommendations as quickly as possible.”

The T plans to replace its entire Red Line train fleet by 2024. So far, 10 carriages have been delivered, six of which are in service, according to a T spokesperson. Orange Line is expected next year. Seventy-four of these cars were delivered and 64 entered service, although not all at the same time.

The T recently withdrew new Red and Orange Line trains from service after an Orange Line car’s brake system failed last week.

The T’s preliminary findings showed that a bolt in one of the car’s brake units was not “properly installed at the manufacturing plant”. After an inspection of 57 cars, the agency said it found improperly installed bolts on six Orange Line cars and one Red Line car.

The bolts have been fixed and the cars are back in service, according to a T spokesperson. Poftak said the T has taken extra steps to ensure the bolts are properly installed on all new trains at the future, and cars in service will be inspected every two weeks until a technical investigation is completed.