It’s Time to Bring the MBTA Into the 21st Century

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) (the T) is broken, but no one at the state house, governor, senate, house, cares to address the real problems the T has. At present, the governor and the T are both hailing the arrival of new Red Line and Orange Line cars. But this is little more than a PR stunt meant to divert the public’s attention away from the MBTA’s more pressing issues. The T did need to replace the Orange and Red Line cars but it also has issues that will leave customers sitting disgruntled on these new cars.
Much of the T’s rapid transit system needs to have its signaling replaced. At present the T is only replacing that equipment after a catastrophic failure which gains the public’s ire. This band-aide approach only puts the entire signaling system into a sort of whack-a-mole status. A properly running signaling system is not just an operational issue, it is a safety issue as well.
A transportation system is only as good as its ability to handle the heaviest of rush hours. At this, the MBTA fails on all fronts, rapid transit, bus, and commuter rail. The MBTA is wont to restructure the bus routes for fear of angering the public. I suggest, however, that a phased restructuring would alleviate most of that concern. The Route 39 bus is an example of one problem. The T’s schedule for this route guarantees 8-minute or less headway. But ask anyone who uses this route and the reality is far different. One of the biggest problems is that the busses cluster along the route with one bus directly behind another which will be followed by a 15-minute wait for the next bus. Such occurrences happen on most of the T’s most heavily used routes.
Many of the T’s bus routes are the remnants of the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway which it took over in 1968. These routes performed well under the old Eastern Mass but have languished under the T. The route runs through heavily populated portions of Woburn, Winchester and Medford. The schedule, however, shows a less than desirable frequency. This route is also an example of the MBTA’s penchant for being reactive than proactive. Their claim is that as demand climbs so will the level of service. But demand will not climb if the route’s frequency is viewed as less than optimal by the public. This mean, to attract more customers the T needs to increase service first. Ironically, this is the only route assigned to both Woburn and Winchester. It would seem that a second route through these towns which ends at Harvard Square would make a lot of sense.
Another issue with the rapid transit system is portions of it cannot handle rush hour traffic effectively. Anyone who has ever ridden on the Green and Red Lines knows how mind numbingly slow these lines can be. The issue with the Green Line is that of four lines, B, C, D, and E feeding into one tunnel. That singular tunnel is a choke point. It is nearly at capacity during off-peak hours which means it is far over capacity during rush hours. The only reasonable solution here is the building of a second tunnel parallel to the first from Kenmore Square to Government Center. This solution is extremely expensive but is the only reasonable one.  Additionally, many routes needs to be extended.  The 85 route is an excellent example.  At present it runs from Kendall Square Cambridge to Spring Hill in Somerville.  This route would serve the public much better if it started at Lechmere, continued through Kendall Square and Spring Hill to Davis Square Somerville, less than a half mile from Spring Hill.
Finally, the best way to lure commuters out of their cars which now clog the Southeast Expressway, the Mass Pike, Route 93 and Route 1 into Boston is to increase the frequency of the trains, add stations a certain key points and run multiple express trains during rush hour. First, the MBTA would need to construct stations everywhere a commuter rail line passes under either an Interstate Highway or Route 1 and then offering express trains into Boston. Additionally, the T needs to totally rewrite its commuter rail schedules discarding the idea that it must stop at every station on every route during off-peak hours. For example, on the Haverhill line there are four station stops within a 2-mile stretch, Wyoming, Melrose, Melrose Highlands and Greenwood. Two other problems with this route are that it runs too few trains between Boston and Reading, and, that it is still single tracked between Reading and Wilmington Jct. which creates scheduling issues. Additionally, many, if not most, commuter rail stations lack sufficient parking for the potential demand. For example, Andover, a heavily used station, has only 150 parking spaces. Reading, also heavily used, with great potential, has only 71 parking spaces. If the MBTA truly wants to get people out of their cars and onto the T then they must have a place for people to park their car.
As it stands now, the MBTA is a less desirable mode of transportation for the Metropolitan Boston area and beyond than the car. The solutions I have suggested above would cost many billions of dollars but that would be funds well-spent. The MBTA must become a far more attractive system than it is now, which is actually a very unattractive system. Massachusetts politicians must come to grips with the idea that the rapid deterioration of our state’s roadways is in no small part due the almost constant heavy traffic they must contend with. But if the cost of maintaining our roadways at present is compared to the suggested upgrade of the MBTA, it then becomes quite easy to justify the outlay of huge sums of money to modernize the MBTA.


Why Is New Hampshire So Passenger Rail Adverse?

Five of New England’s six states have taken a very proactive approach to public transportation. In particular, they have all embraced the idea of upgrading their existing passenger rail lines with an eye towards expanding them. The lone state to shun such thought is New Hampshire.
When the Northern New England Rail Authority was planning a passenger rail route from Boston to Portland, New Hampshire pointedly stated it want no part of it even though the line would run through their state. But as the planning and funding stage turned into preparing the line for passenger service, New Hampshire, somewhat begrudgingly, opted in for stops in Exeter and Dover. It has since added one more station in Durham. Now, many years into the Portland service, all three of those stations have seen considerable use.
In the early 1980s Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, convinced New Hampshire leaders to have a trial run of passenger service to Nashua, Manchester and Concord. Even though the trial was successful and showed promise of growth, New Hampshire declined to fund it any further and the state has resisted all efforts, both within the state itself and by Massachusetts, to re-instated commuter rail to Manchester with stops in Nashua and Merrimack.
The MBTA also more recently made overtures to New Hampshire to extend the Boston to Haverhill line to Plaistow New Hampshire only to be shunned once again. It is impossible to find any rational reasoning behind such rebuffs. Anyone who commutes into Massachusetts using Route 3, 93, or 125, is keenly aware of the traffic nightmare that exists on all three routes. Worse, in the case of route 125 there is no reasonable way to widen the route. Both route 93 and 3 could be widened but at great cost, more than New Hampshire is willing to commit to at present.
Southern New Hampshire’s population is booming as people who work in and around the great Boston area move further out in search of affordable housing. The four counties in southern New Hampshire closest to Boston are Stafford with 125,600 residents, Rockingham with 300,600 residents, Merrimack with 147,200 residents, and Hillsborough with 405,200, a combined total of 978,600 or 74% of all New Hampshire residents. The state itself expects, conservatively, that each of these counties will grow by at least 10% over the next 20 years.
Years ago, the Boston to Montreal route, which passes through Manchester NH was declared a future rail corridor. Research showed that there is likely sufficient number of boardings on this route to create a Boston to Montreal Amtrak route. And while New Hampshire would have to make a significant investment into the project, it would ultimately pay for itself by removing automobiles from its highways while adding revenue to the state via people who live outside New Hampshire visiting the cities along the route. The Maine model has been so successful that not only it added stops to the original route, it has extended the route to Brunswick and is now planning on a second extension to Rockland with further plans for service to Augusta.
With the rail line through Nashua, Manchester and Concord being raised to passenger service levels the state could then enjoy commuter rail service in the same way Rhode Island has with the extension of the Boston to Attleboro route to Providence and T.F. Green Airport. If the state would simply show the willingness, it could immediately extend the Haverhill route to Plaistow and bring immediate relief to the route 125 travelers.
Another example of two states cooperating in such efforts is Connecticut and Massachusetts who are now actively pursuing and extension of commuter rail traffic from Hartford to Springfield and Greenfield Massachusetts. And Vermont of actively working to reinstate service to Montreal from Burlington using the existing New York to Burlington Amtrak route.
Five states see the benefit of pro-actively working on extending and expanding passenger rail service within their states. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand New Hampshire’s continuing abhorrence of passenger rail service. I suspect, and hope, that with the continued pressure for rail service expansion in the Northeast, the near future will see the state finally join what has proven extremely desirable and successful for its neighboring states.

Should Steetcars Ply the Streets of Boston Again?

Boston should have far more street car lines than the 5 existing lines. When buses were taking over in the 1940s and 1950s, their maneuverability and low maintenance were good reason to use them. But there is a certain charm, at least, but a new economy with the return of streetcars. Many cities, El Paso, Dallas, Sacramento, Portland OR, and other cities have rebuilt their streetcar lines. New Orleans, which at one point had only its St. Charles route for streetcars, has returned them to the city streets and is still expanding. Certainly if streetcars were so uneconomical and the public so much against them, they would not have sprung up in these cities and thrived. There must be something else in play, something city planners here in the east are missing.

I think Boston should consider returning trolley to the streets of Boston and surrounding communities rather than limiting them to the exclusive rights-of-way as present. One area, which is growing and lacking in ground transportation, is the seaport area. This area is ripe for a streetcar line which could be built along the area’s broad streets. If you look at a map, a line could run in a circular route, starting at Summer Street at South Station, and continuing out to Black Falcon Pier, turning left on Tide Street and then left again on Northern Ave, then Seaport Blvd to Purchase Street where it would turn left until it reached Summer Street. There is a wealth of people who work in this area and another large group, visitors, who depart South Station looking for easy transportation around the seaport area but finding none. And if the MBTA got just a little bit creative, it would find a way to shuttle these streetcars underground at South Station making a very convenience connection to the Red Line.

The MBTA under the agreement struck with the Federal Government promised a return of the Green Line from Brigham Circle, where it ended for a long while, back out to Forest Hills. Businesses along the route complained it would tie up traffic and reduce parking spaces. Each of these argument could have been allayed by the MBTA at the time but instead they simply caved in to public pressure.

The present MBTA proposal for extending the Green Line to West Medford is extremely flawed and the expense involved shows this. The MBTA would do much better but simply putting the tracks into the streets, McGrath Highway out to Broadway, left of Broadway and out Boston Ave to West Medford. The need for building new stations eliminated, construction costs could be kept to a minimum. And with proper planning, road closures could be kept to a minimum. And as for the branch off to Union Square, that could easily be continued to Porter Square.

One thing streetcars have over buses in spades is lifetime. The eldest MBTA buses go back to the early 1990s where as some of the streetcars date back to the 1970s with the Mattapan Line cars dating to the 1940s. The point being, a properly maintained streetcar can easily have 3 times the life expectation as any bus.

Making the a little more interesting, the City of New Orleans orders throwback style streetcar which look old but have all the modern conveniences and are ADA approved. The City of San Francisco found the actual old streetcars valuable as a tourist draw and use them rather extensively. Those cities used their imagination and probably reasoned properly with the public to gain its support.

While downtown Boston certainly is far from ideal for a return of streetcars, when you go just a few miles from center city you find roads more than broad enough to hand both automobile traffic and streetcars. Washington Street, Tremont Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Beacon Street out to Watertown Square and many others could easily be converted but the MBTA has to want to and has to do its homework.

While this may sound like pie in the sky, the operation of streetcars today is far less than that of the bus. And who knows, the public may actually welcome their return!

Massachusetts: An Example of How Government Fails People

If you are not from Massachusetts you are probably unaware of a severe cash shortfalls one of its agencies is experiencing.  Massachusetts and all of the other 49 states, as-well-as the federal government, is tasked with supplying certain services to all its residents.  One of those is transportation.  That transportation consists of all the roads with their bridges, all the airports, all the seaports, and all forms of public transportation.  Massachusetts is currently experiencing a serious budget problem with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).   The MBTA serves over 70 eastern Massachusetts communities.  The MBTA says it has $130 million shortage.  To deal with that shortfall it is saying it will make serious service cutbacks along with fare increases.

The MBTA is a state agency no different from the state police, Public Utilities, Parks and Recreation, and dozens of others.  Each is funded by a line item in the annual state budget.  That budget is put forth by Governor Deval Patrick and passed by the state’s representatives and senators after they have made their modifications.  Included in that budget is the MBTA’s budget.  Massachusetts also had another half-dozen or so regional transportation authorities that also receive funding from the state.  They include RTAs in the cities of Lawrence, Lowell, Fall River, Brockton, Worcester, Fitchburg, Springfield, and Greenfield.  Each of those areas supplies bus transportation to those cities and surrounding communities.

Massachusetts politicians have been extremely quiet on the financial troubles of the MBTA.  We have heard absolutely nothing from Gov. Patrick or any of the state’s senators and representatives.  Considering they are charged with overseeing the welfare of our transportation this is an unacceptable situation.

The MBTA managed to gain the $130 million shortfall for a variety of reasons.  One thing MBTA officials point out is that they collect roughly 35 cents at the fare box for every dollar spent.  They go on further to say how that number is low compared to other cities.  Studies have shown that Massachusetts does collect less than other cities.  But comparisons must end there and viewed as unequal.  That is because things like capital expenses, age of infrastructure, size of population served, debt service, and many other factors vary greatly from city-to-city.  The MBTA has the oldest subway in the United States.  That all by itself is hugely problematic.

In the 1980s and 1990s Massachusetts aggressively expanded its commuter rail system.  Boston, unlike cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Baltimore, has an extensive track system that lends itself to commuter rail.  But about half of its current system consisted of abandoned or freight only tracks that required upgrading or complete rebuilding.  Additionally, the MBTA expanded its commuter rail diesels and coaches.  It had inherited an aging fleet of rail diesel cars from the B&M Railroad that needed replacement.  But that happened over 25 years ago which happens to be the expected lifetime of such equipment.  Simply said, the entire fleet needs replacement.

In the past several years the MBTA upgraded the Blue Line by rebuilding stations and replacing the subway cars.  But the entire Orange Line fleet and half the Red Line and Green Line fleet also needs replacement.

The Green Line is the most problematic of all.  The ability of any rapid transportation system to serve the public is measured by how many passenger per hour can be served over any portion of its track.  The Green Line’s tunnel from Kenmore to Government Center is currently serving all four of the system’s routes.  The volume of traffic exceeds the ability of that stretch of tunnel to allow the passage of trolleys.  The solution is a simple, yet very costly, one.  A second tunnel must be built.  Anything short of that will not allow for any growth in Green Line traffic.

As for the MBTA’s bus system, its structure is almost completely outdated.  Many of the existing bus routes are leftovers from the 1960s when the MBTA took over the area’s  private bus companies.  For example, the 85 route goes from Kendall Square Cambridge to Spring Hill Somerville.  There is not a particularly high demand for this route.  If you look at the route two questions come to mind.  First, why not extend the Cambridge end from Kendall Square to Lechmere and then on the other end extend the route to Davis Square, a short distance from Spring Hill.  Or maybe this is a route that simply needs to be eliminated.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the 66 route that connects Harvard Square to Dudley Square.  This is a heavily used route that, as anyone who travels it knows, frequently has standing room only on its buses.

That the MBTA is threatening draconian service cuts is not only unreasonable, it shows just how miserably they have failed.  They are using this scare tactic at this time because rising gas prices along with increased patronage gives them the feeling that they have leverage.  It is not leverage that is needed, it is honesty.  These managers are at the very least disingenuous and more likely, outright dishonest.

These are but a few examples of the MBTA’s extreme mismanagement of its system.  Mismanagement always results in overspending.  This mismanagement is not just within the MBTA itself, but from those whose job it is to oversee the MBTA, the governor, his counsel, and others.

The solution is not easy but it is not all that complicated either.  First of all, the Massachusetts government must step in and assume the $130 million shortfall and provide more funding in the short-term.  Next, the Gov. Patrick needs to step in and replace all the political hacks that are entrenched there and replace them with transportation experts, people who have degrees in urban planning and transportation along with a long history of experience in those areas.  He must put an end to the history of patronage that has hamstrung this system and kept it from making desperately needed progress.

The state of Massachusetts is responsible to its people to make a comprehensive study detailing what must be done now and in the future to keep the MBTA running at its present level and at an increased level in the future as demand requires.  This means the governor and other officials are going to have to come up with how much money will be required to take the antiquated MBTA from the 20th Century, where it now exists, into the reality of the 21st Century.  This likely means an increase of the state’s tax on gasoline.  But if the public is provided a full disclosure of the costs involved in running the MBTA, and the other RTAs, the public will accept, if begrudgingly, the necessity of a small tax increase.

The state of Massachusetts, like the federal government, is dishonest with its citizens.  It keeps large amounts of vital information the public needs to make well-reasoned decisions.  The government officials do this for political expediency or because they do not believe the public will understand what they are saying.  This sort of dishonesty must end now.