Bill Would Create New Watchdog With Oversight Limited To Transit Safety Agencies in Massachusetts

By:      Gerald D. Borovick

In March of this year I wrote about Senator Michael J. Barrett’s bill removing regulatory oversight of for-hire household goods moving companies, bus, tow and ride-sharing transportation network companies from the Transportation Oversight Division by eliminating that division from the Mass. Department of Public Utilities.  The bill would have created a new “watchdog” regulator having jurisdiction over the MBTA and businesses regulated by the Division.  That bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation; a public hearing was held on it in May of this year.  Since that time, there has been no legislative activity on Sen. Barrett’s bill.

On July 18, 2023, the Joint Committee on Transportation filed legislation which, if enacted, would leave the Transportation Oversight Division intact – meaning there would be no change to the Division’s jurisdiction over moving companies and certain other regulated industries in Massachusetts.

The Committee’s bill would take MBTA safety oversight of equipment and operations away from the Mass. Department of Public Utilities, create a new regulatory agency called the Office of Transit Safety and give it responsibility for overseeing and securing the safe operation of “mass transportation service” of “public transportation” regulated by the MBTA, MassDOT and Regional Transit Authorities.[1]

Again, as anyone who has been following the breakdown in safety of operation and maintenance of the MBTA in the last two years or so, including the testimony of Ray LaHood, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation to the Joint Committee on Transportation admonishing the legislators in Oct. 2022, to take away safety oversight of the MBTA from the Mass. Department of Public Utilities: “If you don’t do anything else, you need to do that,” the current legislation should be no surprise.[2]

The Office of Transit Safety would consist of an executive director, appointed by a majority vote of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state having experience in the field of transit operations or transit safety.  That person would be appointed for a 3-year term and could remain in office for up to three 3-year terms.  The Office of Transit Safety would have the power to audit, inspect, investigate and examine the MBTA, MassDOT, the RTAs and their contractors.  The Office of Transit Safety would be empowered to issue subpoenas which shall not be made public and take testimony of witnesses governed by the same provisions with reference to secrecy which govern grand jury proceedings.  The Office of Transit Safety would be prohibited from hiring any person who was an employee or received compensation from the MBTA, MassDOT or RTAs for one year after termination of employment or payment.

The legislation also creates a 7 member office of transit safety council with oversight over the Office of Transit Safety, including the power to approve or deny issuance of subpoenas.

The Boston Globe reports that while there is no guarantee that as the bill moves forward in the legislative process it will become law, the support of the House and Senate transportation leaders on the Joint Committee of Transportation is notable.[3]

I would add that because the recent bill has been filed by the Joint Committee – the same committee considering Sen. Barrett’s bill – Sen. Barrett’s bill eliminating the DPU’s Transportation Oversight Division is a dead letter.

It would appear this bill is likely to become law and the regulatory oversight of the DPU’s Transportation Oversight Division over movers in Massachusetts will remain unchanged for now.

Dated:           Sudbury, MA

Jul. 20, 2023

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[1] Committee Bill relative to transit safety, House, No. 4002 – An Act relative to transit safety.  Sec. 2 (amending G. L. c. 161A, §3(i), Sec. 3 (creating new G. L. c. 161E – Office of Transit Safety).

[2] Oct. 25, 2022, Dolven T., “’The current system is not working.’ Mass. Legislature should make sweeping reforms of beleaguered MBTA, former top federal transportation says”  The Boston Globe.

[3] Jul. 18, 2023, Dolven T., “Lawmakers advance plan for new T oversight agency”  The Boston Globe.