MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak Resigns

Written by David C. Lester, Engineering Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Railway Track & Structures
MBTA GM Steve Poftak will step down from the agency on Jan. 3, 2023.

MBTA GM Steve Poftak will step down from the agency on Jan. 3, 2023.

Steve Poftak on Nov. 1 announced that he would step down as General Manager of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), effective Jan. 3, 2023.

Poftak, who has held the top job since Jan. 1, 2019, told employees of his decision in a letter dated Nov. 1, which Railway Age reproduces below.

“It is with mixed emotions that I share with you the news that January 3rd, 2023 will be my last day at the MBTA,” he wrote. “Serving as MBTA General Manager has been the experience of a lifetime and it has been my honor and privilege to work with all of you.

“While we have faced and will continue to face challenges, I believe in the strength and resilience of the MBTA. As I look back on my four years as General Manager, I take great pride in what we have accomplished together.

“We kept service going (and made it better) through a global pandemic. In a world where a lot of people stayed home, the MBTA was out there serving our transit dependent customers.

“And while we know we have more work to do on safety, we have made great strides as an organization, building staffing, expertise, and above all, commitment to making the system as safe as it can be.

“We have also taken the term ‘Building a Better T’ and put it into action—investing billions of dollars into modernizing the system with real results—modernizing the bus fleet, building out commuter rail infrastructure, completing the GLX extension, and major improvements across the core system—just to name a few.

“While I will be leaving in January, please know that I will continue to support the MBTA and its workforce.

“For the next few months, I will be focused on preparing for the transition to a new administration and to new leadership here at the MBTA. For now, please accept my gratitude for the essential work you do every day here at the MBTA.”

The move follows the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) recent call for safety improvements at MBTA. “The agency acquired jurisdiction over transit safety in 2015, and had previously exercised it only over WMATA, which serves Washington, D.C. and neighboring parts of Maryland and Virginia,” Railway Age Contributing Editor David Peter Alan wrote in an MBTA report earlier this fall. “It became involved with safety problems at the MBTA after two reported fatalities (one involving a passenger on the Red Line, which was not shut down). There were also several other reported incidents, including derailments and a runaway train.”

Pursuant to inspections initiated in April, the FTA issued five Special Directives to the MBTA and the DPU (the Department of Public Utilities, the state agency responsible for safety on the transit system) on June 15, numbered 22-4 through 22-8,” Alan reported.

A special directive, according to FTA, “is an order from the federal government that requires an FTA-regulated transit agency or oversight organization to take immediate action on safety issues within a specific period.” The five released in June required MBTA, the MBTA Board of Directors and DPU to work together to remedy safety concerns and improve MBTA’s safety culture.

“The directives noted deficiencies on the Orange and Green lines and elsewhere, and mandated numerous actions that the MBTA must take,” Alan wrote. “They ranged from training to track maintenance to safety oversight by the DPU. The FTA’s enforcement mechanisms include requiring the MBTA to spend its federal grant money for complying with the safety mandates, withholding funds under 49 U.S.C. §5307, and imposing specific restrictions that could include speed restrictions or shutting lines down. The FTA directives did not explicitly order that the Orange Line or the northern part of the Green Line be shut down.

“On Aug. 31, the FTA released its Final Safety Management Inspection (SMI) Report. The 90-page report detailed 24 separate findings, most of which detailed deficiencies concerning management related to safety on the system. While it specified numerous actions that must be taken, the report did not order that any lines be shut down. The same day, the agency issued five more special directives (22-9 through 22-13). The FTA required the MBTA and the DPU to submit Corrective Action Plans in response to each of the special directives.”

To address the FTA’s SMI report findings, MBTA on Aug. 31 announced its launch of the Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, to be overseen by Katie Choe, a 20-plus-year veteran of construction management and oversight and MBTA Chief of Capital Delivery since January 2020. The Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, MBTA said, would operate outside of the agency’s current organizational structure; implement actions to address the report’s findings; and report publicly every month on the agency’s progress toward implementing the FTA’s directives.

“The Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office will help support the MBTA’s more than-6,000 employees, from track walkers to inspectors to operators and motorpersons by giving them the tools they need to succeed, including training, documentation and support systems as we continue to implement the recommended actions presented in the FTA’s report,” Choe said in August. “I have seen first-hand, through countless New England winters, events like championship parades and in their everyday work, the perseverance, effort, and focus of the MBTA workforce and I am confident that they will rise to the occasion again.

“The MBTA’s number one priority remains safety for both our riders and our employees,” Poftak said in August. “We are grateful to the FTA for their recommendations as we build on numerous actions and initiatives already in place across the organization to strengthen our safety management. “Under the leadership of Katie Choe, I am confident that through the Quality, Compliance, and Oversight Office, the MBTA will be better positioned to address the challenges it has faced and implement changes to the organization and system to provide a safer and more reliable T.”

Poftak, who served as Vice Chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board and as a Director of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board since 2015, came to MBTA from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was Executive Director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

Previously, Poftak was Research Director and Director of the Center for Better Government at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. He also worked at the commonwealth’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance, where he managed the $1.3 billion capital budget, prepared quarterly cash flow reporting, and monitored non-tax revenue receipts. He also served on the commonwealth’s Finance Advisory Board and Zero-Based Budget Commission.

Railway Age Executive Editor Marybeth Luczak contributed to this report.

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