Closing system

The state needs a better way to keep track of what it owns

The tragedy involving the dilapidated staircase near the MBTA JFK / UMass station, where a Boston University professor has died, provides an opportunity for heads of state to rethink the way they track properties owned by the ‘State and to propose a better system of follow-up of the maintenance and repairs.

As the Globe’s Elizabeth Koh recently reported, several government agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, have reported safety issues on the stairs leading from Columbia Road to JFK / UMass Station. The stairs were closed and blocked, but not repaired or removed, until the death of Professor David Jones.

At this point, it also became apparent that there was confusion as to which state agency was responsible for repairing these stairs. Initially, an official from T suggested that the structure belonged to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. This was true until 2009, when the legislature reorganized the state’s network of transit agencies and transferred responsibility for major highways to the newly created Department of Transportation. However, as the Globe reported, the law did not explicitly transfer the staircase to T’s station below to MassDOT. But after the tragedy, MassDOT officials finally said it was their responsibility.

“You see here a failure of the system at large. You see bureaucrats being singled out in the broad sense. It’s a mess, ”Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA advisory board, told The Globe. So how many other so-called assets fall into no-man’s-land, where oversight confusion could lead to a similar mess? And what is the state doing to clarify ownership and control responsibilities?

A spokeswoman for MassDOT, T’s parent agency, declined to comment, beyond what she has previously said: “The MBTA has a process to regularly review the condition of MBTA assets at stations. “

Chris Dempsey, Democrat and transport advocate candidate for state auditor, said by email that he believed the person elected to the post office “can identify and highlight the fact that this inventory is at best incomplete and at worst non-existent, and strongly recommends that these agencies invest more to track their assets.” He added: “We must continue to push for a culture of more transparency, openness, accountability and bottom-up accountability.”

Dempsey’s main opponent, State Senator Diana DiZoglio, said via text message that the David Jones tragedy and other T issues “all point to the need for us to do a lot more, to check the money and performances and share them with the public. “

But long before a new auditor takes over, MassDOT should, if it hasn’t already, begin the process of statewide asset tracking to determine who owns exactly which route. , which bridge, which gangway or which staircase. No one is saying it would be an easy task. But Dempsey said breaking it down by region – say, Berkshires – or category – pedestrian bridges – is one way to break it down into manageable bites.

With officials refusing to talk about it, it’s a mystery how the state keeps such records. Part of the reluctance to explain may be related to expectations regarding civil litigation. At the time of Jones’ death, his family said it was “preventable.” But it is also part of the current culture of state government. Under Governor Charlie Baker, information does not circulate; at best, it flows.

In the meantime, there is much to learn from the tragedy of the JFK / UMass T judgment. The danger presented by the staircase was first recognized in 2019. It was closed and cordoned off in January 2020. Several requests services were then closed for unclear reasons, according to the Globe report. It is also unclear whether any service requests have been made to MassDOT, the agency responsible for the repairs.

In September 2021, Jones somehow climbed the stairs – no one knows exactly how – and fell to his death. The stairs were removed the following weekend, demonstrating how quickly the state could have removed the structure had someone taken responsibility for doing so sooner. Everything points to the need to better understand who owns what, as well as the need for a better repair and maintenance tracking system. There is nothing sexy about this part of government. Yet it can be the difference between life and death.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.