With last night’s Senate action on the Transportation Bond Bill, we passed an important milestone in our efforts to improve the transportation system — roads, bridges and public transit. It is worth recapping where we are, with a particular emphasis on the challenge of improving the Green Line.
Representing Back Bay, Fenway and the Longwood Medical Area, I have come to understand how important Green Line service is to the economic health of the region. These areas account for a huge amount of employment and incoming capital, yet they face real constraints on growth due to congestion. At the same time, these are neighborhoods where people live and have valid quality of life concerns.
The Green Line is loaded far above its capacity at rush hour. Full cars often have to pass full stations without taking new passengers. As a result, many more people are driving than want or need to drive, limiting growth and degrading local quality of life.
Last year around this time, we held a meeting about how to build capacity on the Green Line. We identified a number of short and long term measures for improvement.
The big idea for the Green Line is to add more equipment so that during rush hour more trains can be three car trains. To get to three car trains, the T needs to have more cars, and also has to upgrade the power supply — they cannot run three car trains close together without running the risk of overloading circuits.
I was pleased to see that Governor Patrick proposed funding for Green Line cars and power upgrades in his “Way Forward” plan for transportation spending for the next 10 years. Since that plan came out in January 2013, I have been focused on how to make it a reality.
Step one was to put more money in place for transportation system maintenance generally. That was last year’s battle, to fund transportation generally at a high enough level to start catching up on deferred maintenance on roads, bridges and public transportation. The outcome of last year’s battle was a very significant increase in transportation funding — much less than some of us had sought, but enough to make a real difference.
Step two was the step we took last night — to authorize borrowing against the new revenue stream for specific transportation purposes. The borrowing bill authorizes $13 billion in borrowing for capital project spending over the next five years, including $2.5 billion specifically for MBTA projects.
The Governor had allocated a higher number for the MBTA in his Way Forward plan. However, the Way Forward plan was a 10 year plan as opposed to a 5 year plan. Essentially, the difference was the amount of the Green Line cars, so in the bond bill, the purchase of Green Line cars is being pushed out into the future by at least 5 years.
When the early drafts of the bond bill came out, I considered advocating for a substantial increase, to accommodate earlier purchase of the Green Line cars. However, first of all, it became clear that the totals were more or less set in stone politically and a $700 million increase for any purpose was not going to fly. But further, in conversations with the T, it emerged that the T wasn’t really ready to purchase a new Green Line fleet — the existing fleet isn’t actually about to be ready for the junk yard. The more responsible approach to the problem is to continue to maintain the fleet and plan for replacement in the 10 to 15 year time frame, beyond even the time frame of the Way Forward plan.
My next approach was to suggest a 25 to 50 car increase in the imminent car purchase for the Green Line Extension towards Medford. But again, in conversations with the T, new barriers emerged — the T really doesn’t have physical storage space to accommodate a material increase in the number of cars on the Green Line.
So, what I finally did on the issue in the bond bill was to offer language making clear that a portion of the $2.5 billion could be used for
planning design and construction of vehicle storage and maintenance facilities and public process related there to.
The next phase of advocacy is to work with the MBTA and with the Governor to allocated available funds to actually make progress. The big pieces over the next five years will be:
- Understanding and beginning to address the facilities constraints on Green Line fleet size.
- Understanding and, hopefully, addressing the power limitations on the Green Line.
- Making sure that planning is occurring on a responsible time frame for fleet expansion in the next decade.
The MBTA has, in fact, included in its 5-year capital plan funds to support planning for both power upgrades and the acquisition of a new and expanded fleet of Green Line cars. It’s too soon to allocate funds to actually doing the power upgrades as the problem is not yet fully understood. See generally, page 26 of the 5-year capital plan.
We’ll stay on the issue. Later this year, we’ll be scheduling a second public forum for the Green Line and at that forum, we hope to be able to report progress that people will feel sooner — maintenance improvements, signal timing improvements, real-time train location information.
Cover image credit to Wikipedia.