More Thoughts on Boston Transit

Rising demand on the system is the flip side of “lack of investment” in understanding this winter’s MBTApocalypse.


  1. Rising demand on the system is the flip side of “lack of investment” in understanding this winter’s MBTApocalypse.
  2. Through Q3 2014, Orange/Red/Blue Line ridership is up 21% from 2007, bus ridership up 11%, light rail down 13% (and if you’ve ridden the Green Line, can you blame ‘em?), commuter rail down 6%.
  3. As any daily subway rider can attest, the system now teeters on the brink of failure on a daily basis – not just when it’s snowing.
  4. Packed platforms and sardine-can rides are now commonplace. A single disabled train can foul up service for an entire rush hour. No facet of the core system – trains, stations, you name it – was built to handle what it’s handling now.
  5. Because more people (including more businesses) rely on the system, when things go really wrong, the pain is greater. The temptation to run an aging system harder than it should be run in order to keep the economy going increases. The margin for error declines. Bad things happen and it takes longer to recover.
  6. Reinvesting in the core system is absolutely necessary to address those problems, but it’s not enough.
  7. It is not enough because the region – and especially the regional core – is still growing. Boston issued more residential building permits in 2014 than in any year since at least 1996 (the earliest data available).
  8. There are hundreds of new apts planned in my neighborhood (Dorchester) alone. People are squeezing 3-deckers on just about any available plot of land.
  9. And that’s not counting commercial development. This Urban Land Institute report from a couple of years ago gives you some idea.
  10. Growing the core of the region is good for all sorts of reasons, including economic competitiveness and environmental (CO2) impact.
  11. Sustaining that growth while maintaining a high quality of life, however, requires massive investment in the MBTA – both repairs/improvements and incremental expansions such as diesel multiple unit “urban rail” service. There’s just no other option.
  12. Rail extensions – South Coast, Pioneer Valley, etc. – serve a completely different purpose. Should be about providing access to regional core to folks who can’t afford to live there (alleviating residential pressures), improving effectiveness and connectivity of regional rail system, and allowing some of the development sheen of Boston/Cambridge/Somerville to rub off on struggling Gateway Cities.
  13. Commuter rail used to be about bringing commuters from suburbs to core every morning. Now it increasingly needs to be about connecting nodes in a mutually supportive network. We’ve got a long way to go to get there and infrastructure barriers – while important – probably aren’t the most important ones.
  14. One can argue whether that should be a priority given the massive need for investment in the core. But when it comes to things like obtaining right-of-way and doing planning, you need to take the long view. The latest debacle shows what happens when you are too reactive and kick cans down the road.
  15. On efficiency: Yes, the T can spend money more efficiently. But transportation reform is actually making headway.
  16. As Transportation for Massachusetts has shown, reform is already addressing many traditional sources of waste at the T. “23 and out” retirement? Gone. Health care has been merged w/other state employees. Recent solicitations for subway cars and commuter rail service have come in below expectations.
  17. There is still a lot of work to be done, of course, but the stereotype of a bloated MBTA increasingly does not reflect reality.
  18. As for revenue, the loss of gas tax indexing was a blow. But you need to look beyond the gas tax.
  19. Value capture should be an option. The assessed value of property in Boston has increased by >$20 billion (or about one-quarter) since 2007. How much of that increase would have been possible w/o MBTA?
  20. Is it fair to ask Boston property owners like me to pay a part of that incremental value gain to sustain the transit service that makes it possible? Probably.
  21. Increasing the MBTA assessments on cities and towns would have the same effect. But MBTA assessments on cities and towns have decreased by about 13% in real terms since FY 2004. Thanks again, forward funding!
  22. California is also using carbon cap-and-trade revenue to fund high-speed rail and local, low-carbon transit improvements. Reinvestment of cap-and-trade revenues is working in the electric sector in New England with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative; there’s no reason it couldn’t work in the transportation sector.
  23. You also need a shift in federal investment priorities, since Boston’s problems are common to cities with growing transit demand & old systems.
  24. If you think what’s happening in Boston right now is bad, wait ‘til they have to close one of the rail tunnels under the Hudson. And let’s not get started on D.C. These things are national priorities as much as repairing a rural road in Montana. More so, IMHO.
  25. So, maybe a few fewer highway boondoggles and a little more federal investment in transit would be a start.
  26. And since non-gas tax revenue now provides most transportation spending, there’s no excuse to continue to set aside a defined share of that money for highways.
  27. In other words, there’s money in the banana stand to fund both smart expansion and reconstruction/repair of the T – and lots of reason to do both. It’s a matter of harnessing and applying the resources. The political barriers to doing it are difficult but not insurmountable.  Other places around the world do it!
  28. In the meantime, it’s going to be a few years before we can meaningfully improve/expand the MBTA in any case.
  29. So the T, state, city & businesses need to get creative in the interim. More T buses! More Hubway! More Bridj! More room for bike/walk! It’s going to require daily vigilance, creativity and smart planning and expenditure of public resources.
  30. Let’s hope we can move from being reactive to being proactive in solving our transportation problems. There’s lots we can do!



Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.