Lawmakers call for look into MBTA winter woes

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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After a winter of repeated commuter rail failures and sporadic subway and bus woes, state lawmakers say they are preparing to launch a probe into the delays and disruptions.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as the state’s top transportation official, said yesterday that they believe it is time for the Legislature to hold hearings on the public transit problems, which have infuriated commuters throughout the region.

All four Senate Republicans released a letter decrying what they called the “many service delays, outages and signal problems’’ that have hampered the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in recent months.

They called reliable service on the T, which provides more than 1 million rides a day, “essential to the economy and quality of life of the Commonwealth.’’

A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray said the Plymouth Democrat supports the idea. And Senator Thomas M. McGee, the Lynn Democrat who serves as Senate transportation chairman, said he agreed.

“I think it’s something that we should do,’’ he said.

Even Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan said the transit system could benefit from legislative hearings.

“We would be very interested in participating in one or more hearings, especially hearings where the public have an opportunity to come and hear us, and we hear them about the issues,’’ Mullan said. “I think there’s a lot to talk about.’’

Senator Mark C. Montigny, the New Bedford Democrat who chairs the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee, said the hearings should try to determine what has gone wrong.

“Without assigning blame for why something doesn’t work, it’s really difficult to fix it well,’’ Montigny said. “We need to look at why it isn’t working well at a time when the commuter needs it the most.’’

Montigny anticipated a wide-ranging discussion, including the needs and operation of the system, the return on past investment, and the MBTA’s use of contractors and consultants.

Representative William M. Straus, House chairman on the Joint Transportation Committee, said leaders at the Department of Transportation and MBTA are well aware of recent service problems, in particular on the privately contracted commuter rail, and are trying to address them.

But legislative hearings could provide an important public focus and help illuminate the MBTA’s shortcomings and needs, he said.

“There are some tough questions that are, short-term, out of anybody’s immediate control but long-term have to be discussed, in terms of what we want to see in the system and what are the equipment needs,’’ said Straus, expecting some who testify to remind lawmakers the T owes more than $8 billion in long-term debt payments, constraining its operating budget, and make it difficult to address billions in documented infrastructure needs.

“If that’s true, and our transportation system needs to be upgraded, what can be done and is anybody willing to do anything about it?’’

Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which operates the T’s commuter rail, said, “If there’s a hearing and MBCR is called to testify, they will come and testify, absolutely.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at