After the Red Line Derailment, Can the T Get Back on Track?


Frontier Group intern Adam Martin wrote this blog post.

On July 1, Boston’s public transportation agency, the MBTA, instituted a 6% fare increase. While the hike had been approved back in March, two crippling train derailments on the T in June transformed many riders’ discontent from grumbling groans to public outrage. Even two months after “terrible T-uesday” derailment on the Red Line, service remains hobbled by delays.

A June WBUR poll said it all: 82% of respondents described the MBTA as being in a state of crisis or crippled with major problems; 69% said transportation in the Boston area has gotten worse since the infamous 2014-15 winter that virtually shut down the transit system, and 70% said that the planned fare hikes should be delayed until the Red Line is fixed.

Some are fighting back. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu and others orchestrated an #UnfairHikes protest during which canvassers descended on various T stations on the first morning of the fare hike, handing out stickers and urging riders to plaster selfies and hashtags across Twitter. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh voiced the riders’ outrage and called for the MBTA to delay the fare hike. The outrage even stirred Governor Charlie Baker to recommend a $50 million infusion to speed up repairs to the transit system. 

The derailment is not the first disaster the transit system has faced – nor the first time that such a disaster has been used to call for systemic reform.

Consider the winter of 2014-15, a stress test for the T that created daunting delays, crushing cancellations, and red-faced riders. The damage was significant enough for Governor Charlie Baker to form a special panel tasked with investigating the MBTA and proposing possible reforms. This culminated in an April 2015 report that exposed severe structural problems, such as underinvestment in maintaining existing infrastructure, project timelines that were inefficient and needlessly drawn out, and lack of organizational stability and accountability. Ultimately, Governor Baker and the state legislature responded by enacting some of the report’s recommendations into law, one being the creation of a temporary Fiscal and Management Control Board to oversee the MBTA’s finances and operations.

The continued problems with the T raise questions about the effectiveness of Baker’s reform efforts. Nearly four years later, 69% of survey respondents say the MBTA has gotten worse, not better.

The 2015 reforms, while not all-encompassing, did produce meaningful change to the MBTA and exposed commuters and political actors to this policy debate. And with each passing incident, more people become encouraged to hold lawmakers accountable and build momentum for further reforms.

In the case of the most recent fare hike, activists proposed a wide scope of policies that would increase accountability and provide effective alternatives. One circulating proposal would add a resident representative to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, who would advocate for the concerns of daily T riders, particularly those who are low-income and work for hourly pay. Others note that measures such as a gas tax, congestion pricing, a progressive millionaire tax, and surcharges to ridesharing services could raise money to be reinvested in the T to speed repairs – and do so without making riders pay even more.

Will these proposals fix all the T’s problems? Probably not. The MBTA languishes with fundamental issues, none of which can be fixed overnight. But the ongoing outrage across Boston can keep the MBTA and public officials aware of the agency’s obligation to serve thousands of commuters every day. Our ability to get to work and visit our loved ones safely and punctually is too important to take for granted. #UnfairHikes and other activist movements present an opportunity to raise new voices for change. Let’s hope they are heard.

Michael Day via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0