Options for the MBTA? (49 Responses)

I am deeply committed to avoiding MBTA service cuts and also to improving the quality of MBTA service. We squeezed through the planning for the current year without major service cuts, but it’s time to start the conversation about a long-term fix. Your thoughts?

[See the full post at: Options for the MBTA]

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  1. I think we’ll get to open road tolling — the technology and federal legislative issues appear to be pretty much resolved. The major routes are all likely to have tolls within 10 years.

  2. DarrynRemillard says:

    Hi Will- I’m a newbie to your forum. Living out in the Worcester area, I’ve feel as though I’ve got a more broad lens view on this issue. I’m not sure that I-93 should be as heavily tolled, at least not yet. Eventually, it should be. Why can’t the other interstate roads in Mass. be tolled? Much of I-95, 290, 190, 195, 395, 495, 84, 91, Route 146, Route 1, Route 2, Route 3 could be tolled. Mass. gets lots of intra- and interstate travel on these roads. My argument can be boiled down to this: to really revamp transportation in Mass. and get it to where it needs to be for the 21st and 22nd centuries, you’re going to need to attack to this problem on multiple fronts by imposing realistic costs on heavily traveled roads, increase petroleum taxes, and expand commuter rail and subway transportation as viable options.

  3. Marie says:

    I haven’t been participating in the public meetings and discussions, but wonder whether there has been investigation into fee structures and whether a modification could work or help? In DC, the Metro has a peak fare and off-peak fare, and their ride fees vary based on the distance of travel. I understand the T provides an important service and must remain competitive for riders, and I use the T for most of my travel, but living where service was expensive and charged by the distance- not the ride- makes me wonder if we should look at these options.

  4. DougJohnson says:

    Raising the gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon would provide the funds needed for the MBTA as well as for highway projects throughout the state.

  5. Please note that replies above this point in the thread were originally entered as comments on the lead post.

  6. DavidChase says:

    “Is money the only way to do this?” Not necessarily, but money might be the best way to do this. It’s very flexible, easy to tune and tinker. That might be a bug, not a feature, if every change in the political winds resulting in a whipsaw change in transit policy.

    An alternate way to discourage driving without charging more money is to do various things to make cars less “useful”. We could lower speed limits and enforce them (there’s a significant difference in pedestrian danger with every 1mph increment from 20 to 30mph — the risk of pedestrian death in a crashes increases by 5-7x over that interval — from 5%, to 35-45%, according to what I read). We could change rules for right-of-way — establish bus-only lanes, so that they are not delayed by traffic jams. We could modify the signal at lights so that busses (in the bus lane) got to go first and not be impeded by cars, or we could allow busses to hurry the cycle so that they could get through without stopping (at the expense of car cross-traffic). We could remove lanes in general from auto use; give people more room to walk and ride bicycles. We could change signals all over to give more priority to things that are not cars. For instance, if you have to cross Fresh Pond Parkway on foot, there are various signalled pedestrian crossings. They have a decently long interval after each button press cycle before they will activate again; shorten that interval, and make it that much faster to walk or bike, and that much slower to drive.

    Note that this is all still costly, just in “time”, not “money”. This makes it in some sense a “progressive” tax, since the time of a higher income person is “worth more”.

    The one problem I have with how we do transit, is that for me, it’s not fast and flexible enough, and I don’t know what it would take to make it fast and flexible enough. My bicycle is faster, runs on my schedule, is immune to traffic jams, and I always find a place to park near where I need to be. I think that might be a fine metric for evaluating any transit system — until it’s faster than a fat old guy on a bike, it’s not fast enough. I have no problem at-all with discouraging car use; it’s cars on the road that keep most people from riding bikes, and there are a few roads that I avoid because of traffic. And good transit might be cheaper; I do spend freely on my bicycle, whenever I think it might make it nicer for me to ride. If everyone did that, it would amount to a heck of a lot of money (though not near as much as we spend on cars).

  7. KLEIN says:

    I don’t know what the answers are – but I do know that all measures possible must be made to increase T ridership – and decrease use of cars. This would mean significant investment in the MBTA – to make it really work for more people – and pressures on car drivers (is money the only way to do this?)- especially those who drive non-hybrid vehicles and are “single drivers” – one person driving a 2000 to 4000lb car or SUV, with all the waste of gas and pollution, including greenhouse gasses, to transport only themselves to wherever.

    This is, as I see it, an public policy, transportation planning and infrastructure issue. Visionary leaders would pay more attention to planning for our shared future – and realize that an large investment in public transportation – a system that is practical and works for many more people – especially people who are currently forced to travel congested roads (like I93) as single drivers – in a world where fossil fuels will only become more and more expensive – would pay for itself and maybe even produce revenue, reduce congestion, stimulate economic growth and reduce all kinds of pollution.

    The reality is that people who live close to public transportation that works use it. I fondly remember living in Davis Square and riding the red line to and from work – and the freedom it gave me to go nearly everywhere in Boston very easily and efficiently – without having to drive nearly anywhere. I had easier access to many places living in Davis square than I ever did with a car – especially getting into and out of the city – which seems to me to be the source of most of the traffic – jobs in Boston, people living in suburbia.

    People who live on the T system have a special privilege – the property owners are the people who benefit more than anyone else – higher payments for rent and higher property values. I agree with an additional property tax on real estate within a radius of a train station. I see the bus system as much different – it is much less efficient and I doubt being on a bus route raising properly values as much. Again – some tax assessment on real estate very close to bus routes would make sense – higher rents, higher property values.

    But in the final analysis – there is no short term answer for this long term problem. Our culture is always looking for the easy way – the quick fix. It takes real investment and vision to grow a system that works – a public transportation system that can sustain itself, reduce pollution to a huge extent and help resolve intolerable road congestion – for good – requires leadership that I don’t see right now. The Big Dig was, in my opinion, a huge error in judgement – it didn’t do a heck of a lot of good except for a small number of drivers and some very crooked contractors. We need a “Big Dig” level of vision and commitment to public transportation – but because the people who have cars and drive alone enjoy this privilege that costs us all – in so many ways – and the people who currently use the MBTA have less money and political power, I don’t see this happening until a crisis point is reached – if then.

    On a final note – don’t “tax” people who have disabilities to pay for larger issues. Our MBTA system still isn’t fully accessible for the majority of people living with disabilities – which is a shame and a disgrace. “The Ride” is not the problem. The 200% increase in Ride fares will cost the Commonwealth more ultimately – because people are unable to even attend all of their medical appointments due to an $8 fare. This will result in much higher ultimate costs – for the ER vists and inpatient care that will be needed.

    This is another example of short-sighted policy – investing over 1.5 billion in biotech companies is fine, but try suggesting we invest in people – our most precious and fragile resource – and an outcry is heard that reaches far and wide – there is a total lack of understanding that anyone can become disabled at any time – this is not a “laziness” or “abuse of the system” issue. Able bodied people have no idea what disability is like – if they did, our whole society would treat people differently.

    Try raising Mass Pike tolls that much and there would be a public outcry – yet the poorest and most vulnerable people are taxed and have no voice due to many factors – these are people some of whom have a little as $700 a month – and must choose which medical appointments they can afford to attend and how often they can go food shopping – not to mention not being able to get to activities that allow real community participation – like voting.

    I know this was too long- but I read all the other posts and found them to be myopic – near sighted – instead of looking at the long term issues.

  8. Well taken — telecommuting is part of the answer.

    The question of how many stops is perennial — always subject to adjustment.

  9. GeorgesBrun-Cottan says:

    It has been a while I did not use MBTA, but various annoyance/thoughts.
    . Work on the bus: bus stops are too close (3 stops between cross street and hittinger street, 3 stops between blanchard street and freshpond parkway). It increases the commute time, it creates congestion on traffic and other bus on same line. Work with road departments so during commute, bus do not stop the traffic – maybe more frequent stop encroachement on the curbside? benefits car and bus. Commute time is slow – so narrowing/doubling lines across bus stop with priority to bus exiting stop might help.
    . I am really surprised by the low rate of commute in Cambridge, but the stats are from 2000 and there was significant change (e.g. tech parks around Alewife). Maybe new stats will show better commute rate?
    . There is no stats correlating mbta use rate with number of transportation connection required. Everytime public transportation is not direct and requires even one connection… you have to be a hero or really really have no other way…
    . Bus is not as comfortable as the train/metro, but it use the same infrastructure than car and is much more flexible. How does compare the cost of transportation for bus with the metro? Lanes can be secured for bus similarly as car pool lane at come hours. If bus and car are electric – could we convert subway lane into bus lane that could connect to rest of the road? I know crazy :-)
    . Removing non work incentive to commute: more online services (like RMV registration, online payement of parking ticket :-). Favor adding public service (social security, RMV) or assimilated (like MGH service in Waltham).

    I am lucky enough for my work to allow a decent amount of telecommuting. It is not clear to me yet what will be the impact of telecommuting in Boston Metro: Boston is not anymore an industrial area and it is not clear if the rational for concentration and commute will keep like this for long. This is probably too far away for the investment in this thread though… but creating regulation and incentive for companies to favor telecommuting might help.

  10. Again, let me say that the back and forth here is very helpful — a very full exposition of many of the arguments that we’ll face over the coming months!

    Thanks again to all.

  11. Good point that the final solution may be an all of the above approach.

    Yes, the numbers quoted are more recent — 2006-8. The 2000 Census just furnishes consistent data.

  12. DavidChase says:

    In the spirit of full and equal taxation closely tied to uses, we have Rhymes With Orange (14 Sept 2012): http://www.bostonglobe.com/2011/09/09/rhymeswithorange/TpFLQV2vEBfEyjDMa55gqM/story.html
    (I hope the link stays active….)

  13. MarkKaepplein says:

    Another example of how taxing drivers is wrong – try doing this first:

    All parents sending kids to private primary/secondary schools should be compensated for leaving more resources to the public school students.

  14. MarkKaepplein says:

    My comment got pulled out from being a reply, so lost context. It is responding to the claim that public transit serves drivers by reducing contention for road capacity, thus drivers ought to pay for that.

  15. DavidChase says:

    Mark, the point of whinging about trucks is simple arithmetic. Suppose you have 3000 Hondas (or similar 1-ton subcompacts) on the road. Add one fully loaded 18-wheeler. You just doubled the road wear, when .03% of the traffic is trucks. If one percent of the traffic is trucks, you get 30 times the road wear of no trucks. If half the trucks are empty, then 15 times the road wear. Even when half the trucks are empty, and the others are only half-loaded, 1% truck traffic more than doubles the wear on the road.

    And you are trying to have it both ways with market-based arguments. You cannot on the one hand say that you want to price things as close to their use (charging towns for increased property values, charging beneficiaries for increased service) and then go all “good for the economy” on road socialism. We know that trucks consume roads much, much faster than smaller vehicles; they should pay in proportion to their use. Costs may shift, but markets are really good about exploiting cheaper alternatives — either trucks will be loaded more lightly, or stuff will be produced more locally (when the cost of transit justifies it), or by rail, or by boat. If it raises prices for the poor, the best way to subsidize them is to put more money in the pockets of the poor, and not to launder the subsidy through the trucking industry.

    And market-based — trying to apportion transit charges to the people who benefit from them — is completely compatible with congestion charges. There’s competition for space on the roads in Boston. Right now, people “bid” for that space by waiting in line. Congestion charges mean that you can “bid” by spending money. It makes sense to not pursue congestion charges when they require cumbersome toll booths, but if we can do it on-the-fly with cameras, that’s a pretty lightweight transaction.

  16. Agreed that the furnaces are a big problem.

    I think that the air quality monitoring is regionally defined. The classic smog components affect the whole region.

  17. Not sure how the public would feel about it! I’m interested to hear the responses!

  18. Thanks to everyone weighing in here! This is exactly the kind of back and forth that needs to happen over the the next year or so. I really appreciate the comments!

  19. MarkKaepplein says:

    Yeah, I’m saying to try and get the court order reversed. The Red-Blue line interchange was part of the deal too, along with the Silver Line, parking expansion, and added commuter rail. The MBTA wants to can the Red-Blue connection, which makes sense to me as little pollution could be reduced by it.

    Having all the extra MBTA service added justifies increasing the total sum of community assessments. 2.5% increases could be justified with constant service, but offerings have increased, thus charges should also.

  20. MarkKaepplein says:

    The problem with oil and greenhouse gas production is that both are global. Building domestic oil production has little effect on the global oil prices we pay. Global warming is unstoppable. Any economic suffering we take on to slow warming just gives strength to economies that don’t handicap themselves.

    People drive to NH to escape sales tax on purchases, so driving a little once a year for a cheaper inspection is easy. Instead, higher registration fees could be applied to vehicles registered in communities along I-93, and Route 3, though that too can be avoided.

  21. MarkKaepplein says:

    I’m not sure what the point is of whinging on about trucks. The largest represent a small fraction of road traffic. 80,000lbs is the Interstate maximum, while some state roads in Maine, for example have allowed 100,000lbs. I remember well the logging trucks thundering by when headed skiing. Many trucks around here are seldom fully laden and often return empty. I agree trucks should bear higher cost, but it just goes straight to inflation and higher prices of all goods. Economists have probably worked out what might be needed to shift more freight to rail and water. I’m afraid the answer would be significant shift is too expensive.

  22. DavidChase says:

    I don’t think trucks pay anywhere near enough; road damage is proportional to at least the cube of the wheel weight, summed over all the wheels. I bought and read a book on this (Road Work, Brookings Institution, http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/1989/roadwork ). Their basic recommendation was to charge trucks a good deal more, and then build stronger roads that would not need repairing so often (thus increasing the value of the roads). They justified this with a lot of math, attempting to assign costs to congestion, and to lost use of road from repairs, etc.

    Note that the FHWA says that damage is proportional to the 4th power of wheel weight. Redoing the math below using that relation is left as an exercise for the reader, but it only gets more alarming.

    Here’s a stab at computing a “fair” price for trucks using our roads, given a cubic relation between tire weight and wear. (By-the-way, some places, perhaps Massachusetts, have weird rules that penalize multiaxle trucks, when we should actually like that because it spreads the load and saves the road , perhaps by as much as a factor of 8).

    My 2000 lb Honda, has 4 wheels, times 500 cubed = 500 M “units of damage”. A fully loaded 18-wheeler, assuming evenly distributed weight, has 18 * (80000/18) cubed = 1,580,000 M “units of damage”, or 3000 times the road damage.

    We pay $.235 per gallon gas tax in Massachusetts. Convert that to a per-mile tax by dividing by my mpg (about 30), gives about $.008/mile.

    If I’m not being overtaxed in my Honda, then a fair rate for that truck would be 3000 times higher, or $24/mile when fully loaded, or $3/mile if half-loaded. If a truck gets 3mpg, then between $9 and $72/gallon of fuel would be a fair tax. Truck registration fees in Massachusetts appear to be $1600/year ( http://www.mass.gov/rmv/fees/index.htm ) for an 80000lb semi-trailer. That cover 530 miles of road use half-loaded, or 67 miles fully-loaded.

    Perhaps I picked the wrong car for a reference — say the reference weighs twice as much, or 4000lbs, Then things get 8 times better for the truck — between $1.25 and $9 per gallon of fuel, or the registration fee covers between 4240 and 530 miles of road use. That estimated fuel tax is still far higher than what they pay, and the miles covered by the registration fee are quite low.

    And in case you’re wondering about bicycles and their “fair share”, the heaviest bike I know of is mine, fully loaded (happens about once per year) with 250lbs on each of two wheels. That’s 1/2 the wheels, and 1/8 the damage per wheel, or 16 times less damage than the Honda ($0.008/mile). So per mile, a “fair” fee for that bike fully loaded is about $0.0005. Unloaded half-weight and 8 times less cost, or about $0.00006 per mile — and I’m a heavy guy on a heavy bike. At 3000 miles per year, my fair share for road damage from my bicycle is about 20 cents.

  23. MatthewDanish says:

    I guess I wasn’t entirely clear on this. In the Austin system, there are no human toll collectors at all. Everyone goes through the high speed system, in-state, out-of-state, anyone. The tolls don’t take up any additional land either. They’re about the size of overhead signs, and there are no additional lanes necessary. Most EZ-pass based tolls that I’ve seen are much more sprawling (e.g. the Allston tolls), and require human collectors for non-users. It’s possible that newer ones are better, I haven’t been keeping close track.

  24. gabiromanow says:

    What about a gas tax in and within 10 miles of Boston?

    What about a fee on car inspections? (Also within ten miles?)

    We must talk about public transportation in terms of quality of life for those who use it, as well as quality of the planet. Even those in Western Massachusetts are threatened by climate change and pollution. The more cars, the more the whole planet suffers. A robust public transportation system everywhere it can be must be a part of the solution.

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