(State House News Service) -- After improvising through much of the historically harsh February storms, the MBTA plans to develop reduced trip snow schedules for next year and to purchase snow-clearing equipment, officials said after an oversight hearing Monday.
Those ideas came about through a peer-review process with transit officials from New York, New Jersey, Toronto, Philadelphia and Chicago, other cities that face challenges from snow and cold.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the MBTA has to balance between giving people a way to get around during bad weather conditions, when motorists are often discouraged from driving, and giving workers a chance to perform maintenance to protect equipment.
"We were trying to make those balancing decisions in real-time under real pressure," Pollack said, referring to high-level discussions this winter. "That's not the optimum way to do that. Now we have the advantage of learning from what did and didn't do right."
Interim MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola told reporters the proposed schedules for extreme conditions would be offered for public comment before going into effect, and he said the T would purchase diesel-powered equipment that would be able to run on the lines when the electrified third-rail is down. Pollack said the T needs "special purpose" equipment for snow removal and other tasks, rather than relying on regular subway cars.
DePaola and Pollack discussed strategies suggested by the peer review - such as a non-corrosive, non-toxic de-icer that can be used on the third rail - during an oversight hearing by the Transportation Committee.
"The thing about snow schedules that's always bothered me was the first words to come out of everybody's mouth when there's a snow event was, 'Don't drive; take the T,'" MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Paul Regan told reporters. He said, "The T's ability to deliver service on snow days has to be as close to regular service as it possibly can... It's in the snow where they need to shine, and they haven't done it."
Regan told the News Service the T should better manage its workforce.
"There's a lot of absenteeism at the T," said Regan, who blamed that phenomenon in part ON poorly trained managers, and said the T's efforts to ensure workers showed up have slipped since about a decade ago. He said, "There was progress, and things got better. But it's one of these things where that was then and now some other part of the building's on fire."
Rep. Evandro Carvalho, a Dorchester Democrat, asked why the MBTA hadn't "caught up" to other transit agencies that use de-icer and specialized snow-clearing vehicles.
"It sounds to me kind of basic," Carvalho said.
DePaola, who was the highway chief until recently stepping in to the top of the T, said people can get "comfortable" with traditional methods of addressing situations. After the hearing, DePaola said the T ran "flawlessly" in past years during snowstorms. He said, "Basically we didn't have the need before to try different things and go out and experiment with different things. Necessity has driven us to look at new innovative methods to keep the service running under extreme weather conditions."
This winter after learning about the de-icer, the MBTA used it on the Blue Line, but the system still lacks equipment to spread it efficiently, DePaola said. He said New York and Chicago publish reduced schedules that clear the systems for maintenance during the middle of the day during extreme weather, and those systems use the relatively new de-icer.
House Transportation Chairman William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat - who chaired the committee by himself as Senate Chairman Tom McGee got tied up by security at an event with President Barack Obama - said the committee would hold another hearing after the release of recommendations for the MBTA by a gubernatorial advisory group.