Legislators set oversight hearing on state oversight of T safety

For Immediate Release

The state legislative committee in charge of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities will conduct a hearing into the DPU’s discharge of its responsibility to oversee the safety of operations at the MBTA.

Sen. Mike Barrett and Rep. Jeff Roy, Senate and House Chairs of the Joint Legislative Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, sent a letter of invitation this morning to DPU Chair Matt Nelson, inviting him to testify at the proceeding, set for early October.

Barrett and Roy wrote, “We’ve been disturbed and disappointed to read the contents of the Safety Management Inspection of the Federal Transit Administration.” The legislators questioned whether “the DPU is motivated enough, independent enough, big enough, focused enough, and expert enough.”

On the question of independence, Barrett and Roy pointed out that the federal report directs the DPU to “examine and ensure its organizational and legal independence from the MBTA” and identifies “shared agency reporting relationships to the Governor” as a potential problem. “We don’t worry about explicit interference,” the legislators wrote Nelson. “We worry instead about a ‘don’t make matters worse’ mentality. ‘After all, we’re all on the same team here.’ Maybe the safety operation, wherever it’s situated, should not be on the same team the T is on.”

As for the size of the safety operation, the legislators said that, as of early September, the DPU’s Transportation Oversight Division has 11 authorized positions. “Our information,” Barrett and Roy said, “is that only nine are filled at present.” The two chairs point out that the DPU’s safety jurisdiction is very broad. “It strains credulity,” they said, “to contend that 11 people – or 13 people, or 15 – can range across the entire state to patrol the safety practices of trucks, railways, buses, household moving companies, towing companies, and hazardous waste companies, as well as the T.”

On the issue of focus, the legislators said the DPU is best known for regulating the monthly rates Eversource, NationalGrid, and other electric and natural gas utilities charge consumers. “Recently, as an outgrowth of these core assignments, the agency has assumed critically important responsibilities for shaping Massachusetts’ response to climate change,” Barrett and Roy wrote. “We wonder whether the state agency that must tackle the increasingly urgent questions of natural gas and electric power in a time of climate crisis should also handle inspections of household moving companies and towing companies. The damage from stretching the DPU too thin could cut in both directions. Either the safety mission could suffer due to the ever-growing concern about climate problems, or the climate mission could suffer due to the fire-drill nature of safety problems.”