The Challenges Faced by the MBTA

To run Greater Boston, we need trains and buses that run reliably. To get there, we are going to have to make some hard choices.

For what it’s worth, over the past few years of working with the MBTA to improve service to my district, I’ve formed a positive impression of the MBTA’s current leadership — both on the executive side and the union side — they are smart people working hard to do the right things for the right reasons.

Although we can improve our communication about service, we can’t provide reliable service without spending more money on system maintenance — and I’ve long advocated for better long-term funding and will continue to do so.

It is clear that, for now, our Governor intends to solve the problem without new taxes. With the departure of the General Manager, he owns the challenge. I wish him success and I look forward to collaborating with him. But he won’t find any easy answers.

The MBTA competes directly with every other important state and local budget priority.  General tax revenues supply 65% of the T’s $1.9 billion budget.1 It’s a tight budget year all around and it won’t be easy for the state to provide additional help.

Further, it is only 19 months since the legislature passed a package to improve support for transportation investment. Some of the benefits of the recent package will take several years to be felt — notably the new Red and Orange line cars.  While many of us felt the package should be larger, the voters voted to reduce it in November — the appetite for a new aid package in this session is low.

Public transit is essential — you just can’t get all the people in and out of the urban core without it. As true as that is, the majority of commuters, even those commuting to the central city, do drive, so the direct constituency for transit is not everyone.2 That makes it harder to fund than some other programs.

There are no easy cost cutting strategies either. It is true that the MBTA carries significant indebtedness, but restructuring doesn’t offer any relief. The state contributions to the MBTA already amount to more than twice the MBTA’s total debt service costs.3

It is also true that over decades, through successive collective bargaining agreements, MBTA employees negotiated a compensation package that is heavy on pension and benefits as a share of total compensation. It is bad policy for public agencies to grant compensation increases in the form of generous benefits, because those benefits stand out and are offensive to many taxpayers. But we have already cut the most unusual of those benefits and it is not at all clear that T workers have total compensation that is out of line.4

Given limited resources and more or less fixed costs, we need to do a better job setting priorities within our transportation budget. Some routes in the transit system have relatively low ridership and are therefore very expensive to run.  Yet, every route matters deeply to its ridership, which, by definition, includes some people who have no other way to get around.  The system-wide weekday average taxpayer subsidy per bus ride was $1.42 in 2011.  One of the options put forward in the 2012 planning cycle was to cut the service that was subsidized at three or more times that level — in the face of very emotional opposition, that option really didn’t get serious consideration.5

Similarly, some expansionary elements of the current long term transportation plan are likely to have relatively low ridership, notably proposed rail service to Hyannis, Springfield and the South Coast area. Yet these proposals have passionate support from the legislators whose districts they would benefit.

The new Governor may have the biggest impact if he is able to force some hard choices about cutting routes and expansion projects that don’t justify themselves — that way, we may be able to concentrate management attention and our scarce resources on the most heavily used routes.

I want to thank everyone for weighing in. I have read through all of the comments up to March 1 at 4:00PM. Dozens of good suggestions. Some differences of opinion on details and some broad differences of opinion about where to go, but a lot of urgency across the board. I share that urgency and accept responsibility to do my part to address the situation. I do believe that part of the answer will definitely be to do a better job choosing priorities.


Note 1: In the budget for the current fiscal year, sales tax payers are covering $970 million and the state is contributing another $135 million in assistance subject to appropriation.  The T also receives $160 million from assessments on cities and towns in the service region, which is covered ultimately by property taxes. Fares cover only $597 million. To be fair, public transit is never self-sufficient — financially, the MBTA is comparable to its peers nationwide. See this analysis of data from the National Transit Database (see page 14).

Note 2: According to the Central Transportation Planning Staff, highway travel accounts for 298,000 trips per week day into the Boston Business District (Back Bay, the South End, down town and the Seaport), while transit accounts for approximately 138,000 trips per day. And, of course, the transit ridership share declines as one moves from the core of the city.

Note 3: The state pays for all the debt service of the MBTA and additionally roughly half of the MBTA’s operating costs. The MBTA’s current financial structure was created in 2000 and since then operating costs have grown much more than debt service costs. From 2001 to 2012 operating costs rose 76% while debt service rose only 25%. The D’Allesandro Report in 2009 (p.17) made clear that savings on debt service costs were actually what kept the MBTA afloat in the first decade of the new financial structure.

Note 4: In 2009, transportation reforms ended the famous “23 and out” pension model for new employees and brought MBTA employee health care into the standard state framework. From a total compensation standpoint today, it’s hard to say whether rank and file MBTA employees are overcompensated. Comparisons in the D’Allesandro report (page 9) suggest that their hourly compensation levels are comparable to transit workers in other cities and with hourly wages in the vicinity of $30 per hour, their total package may fairly reflect their arduous split schedules. In any event, for complex historical reasons, their contracts are protected by federal labor law as well state constitutional provisions.

Note 5: As part of the MBTA service planning process in 2012, the Central Transportation Planning staff estimated (see page 9) the per ride subsidy for all the bus routes in the MBTA system. Subsidies ranged from a little under a dollar per passenger ride to over $10 per passenger ride. Buses are the most deeply subsidized mode of transit, with fare revenues covering roughly 25% of operating costs, The several rail components of our transit service — commuter ( at 48%), subway (at 61%) and “light rail”, i.e., the Green Line, (at 51%) — cover more of their costs, but their ridership would decline without feeder buses, so it’s hard to tease apart relative cost-efficiency. See this National Transit Database profile of the MBTA.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

145 replies on “The Challenges Faced by the MBTA”

  1. I am totally dependent on the MBTA — I had to cancel my volunteer job at the Museum of Science for three weeks because of poor public transportation. This is the first time in recent memory that the MBTA has been closed down for two days. Also I am dependent on it to make doctors appts in Boston. I had to reschedule. The average MBTA driver makes $100K with overtime — is that too little? I am sorry Beverley Scott left but we need to get someone new in there right away.

  2. The Pioneer Institute at presents some concrete steps to improve the MBTA. They would place the MBTA in receivership and establish a receivership board. See their website for their detailed suggestions.

    1. It’s not clear to me that receivership would help. If it meant only a new set of overseers or managers, we already have that with a brand new state administration and a new MBTA chief coming in. However if receivership allowed the MBTA to cut through restrictive contracts, work rules, etc., maybe it could help.

  3. Will I agree there are no easy choices. Leadership is required. Clarity and transparency are required. There are opportunities to increase the efficiency of government. We need to get the cost of labor in government reduced. That means reducing benefits, healthcare costs, pensions etc. it means automating and reducing the size of the govt workforce. It won’t be popular but we need to take a page from the private sector. Not everything in private sector will be fit for public consumption but continuing to kick the can down the road, as we have with the MBTA, will get us the same outcome with the broader health of the mass economy. As you said. Pick the priorities. Then self fund through shifts in spending. Say no to programs we can’t afford. As revenues rise through improvements in the economy we can resume spending on those good programs we may have had to suspend.

  4. This winter probably changed the political culture around spending money on the T, certainly to some degree, though perhaps not by enough.

  5. The city (central Boston plus eastern Cambridge) cannot function without working mass transit. Most people using mass transit from Belmont/Arlington/Brighton could afford to pay more for the service – it is cheaper than driving and paying for parking – so at least for your constituency a fare increase with the extra funds dedicated to improving reliability and rush hour service would probably be popular. Similarly, most people using commuter rail face a similar situation: the commuter rail is much more attractive than trying to drive into the city at rush hour, even if the fare were to increase.
    For all these travelers the main issue is not the cost, but the lack of reliable service: will I really make it to work on time?
    The Red Line and Orange Line and some bus lines are already at capacity during rush hour even when there is no disruption. Even a small service disruption or weather problem can push the system over the brink, causing the subway trains to be overfull, so you have to wait for the second or even third train before you can squeeze on. And commuting packed in like a sardine is not pleasant. Even a small improvement in this respect would be worth a fare increase.
    Perhaps the legislature could figure out some way to subsidize poorer citizens, e.g. by helping them to buy monthly passes, to make a fare increase more politically acceptable?

  6. Dear Will, I would put an immediate stop to ANY expansion plans and reinforce what we already have. Maintenance, it seems to me, is an absent word in the Massachusetts vocabulary, Be it for the MBTA or Belmont infrastructure. The motto is to wait until there is complete decay, pass the begging hat, i.e., more taxes, and destroy and rebuild.

  7. Very useful background. Thanks, Will. Seems to me the solution is both in cost reduction and financial investment. On the cost reduction side, the MBTA should bring in a management consulting firm that can make an objective (i.e., not beholden to any interest group) system-wide assessment of where costs can be cut. From my own experience in this kind of work, I know there could be a huge number of possibilities. Their report should be made public, then let the MBTA managers and the politicians decide. On the financial side, I don’t see how we can possibly have a proper transit system without more investment. We should be ready to do that. A fully functioning public transportation system is essential to the Greater Boston area. It’s a disgrace that we haven’t kept it up.

  8. I cannot see how we can expect to pay for decades deferred maintenance by the GOP panacea of “cost cutting”. We see how well privatization has worked with the Keolis deal …

    . Like any great city, the public transit system is the only way to allow the city to function without choking on vehicular traffic. We need to upgrade tracks, signaling and cars. That means spending money. I do think a funding mechanism is available.

    I think a referendum on legalized marijuana is highly likely in the 2016 election. It makes sense for many reasons. Here’s another: dedicate the tax revenue stream to funding public transit.

  9. What is the subsidy cost to the T for the Senior Discount? As a senior who uses the T exclusively for local travel I would be willing to give up this discount as part of a fare increase package.

  10. I hope this winter’s congestion while much of the T was out of service has served to educate drivers on the benefits of public transportation. Now that they’ve sat in traffic created by thousands of commuters opting to drive instead of take public transit, they will perhaps understand two things. First, that driving a car is already heavily subsidized by taxes spent on roads and traffic infrastructure. Second, eliminating cars by supporting public transit and alternatives like bicycle commuting improves life for everyone and is in the interest of car commuters, too!

    I’d hope that this is part of the message: we are all in this together. If we look below the surface, we can see how all these choices act together to make a good or a bad result.

  11. With all due respect, this is the same story we’ve been hearing for years.

    We get it… the MBTA does the best with what it has, and the State’s budgets are tight, and blah blah blah.

    In the 15 years I’ve been riding the T we’ve seen multiple fare increases with multiple service cuts. You might as well shut the whole thing down if you can’ figure out how to solve the problems.

    Frankly, the 3 million people in Central and Western MA shouldn’t matter. Public transit helps them indirectly by keeping Boston thriving. A thriving Boston is good for the Massachusetts economy. Improving the T will improve the economy.

    But regardless, this is why you guys make the big bucks. This is our elected officials job to fix and no one seems to be doing anything meaningful about other than telling us how hard of a problem it is.

    1. Public transportation is the wave of the future. We need an updated, state of the art system, well managed. After that, we need to continue to expand access to public transportation throughout the Commonwealth.

  12. Thanks Will for responding to a tough transport situation, which stimulates all kinds of irrational emotional responses with the best data that we have available, and a genuine effort to try to make things better while acknowledging the constraints.

    I have a few questions, after a quick perusal of the National Transit Databse profile of the MBTA and comparing it with a system I grew up with, the MTA in New York City. Salary/benefits is a much lower percentage of total operating expenses in New York, while “purchased transportation” is a major portion of expenditures in Massachusetts. Is the latter because the commuter rail is contracted out, or is this implying that assisted services like The Ride are bankrupting the system?

  13. On current funding priorities:

    Any chance the south coast rail expansion could be tabled, along with the convention center bonding, and that money reallocated to the MBTA’s maintenance backlog?

    On the personnel:

    Wouldn’t the most realistic fix to the employee compensation issue be, in terms of burdensome long term financial liabilities, to transition from a defined benefit to defined contribution package?

  14. I suspect that many of the voters who opposed the automatic escalation in the gasoline tax last November were ok with the idea of the gas tax going up over time – they just didn’t want the increases to occur without a vote of the legislature and the approval of the Governor. Even still, the vote on this ballot question was very close – many voters were ok with automatically increasing the gas tax in line with inflation. Anyway, if a poll was taken today, I think that a majority of voters would support modestly increasing the gas tax to address some of the T’s issues. Most people realize that you have to pay to get. Boston and Cambridge are the economic engines for Massachusetts and these cities won’t function very well without a reliable T. We all need the T to work. The thousands of folks who drive into Boston and Cambridge each day would probably not be very happy if thousands of current T users joined them on the roads. Gridlock is in no one’s interest.

  15. More on the marijuana – revenue proposal:

    Massachusetts is roughly 20% larger by population than Colorado. We probably have triple the college student attendance. I think it would be a conservative estimate that Massachusetts’ revenues from marijuana sales and related tax revenues from dispensaries and growing facilities would be a third larger than Colorado’s.

    In the first year of Colorado’s marijuana experiment, pot and pot-related tax revenues were estimated at about $76 million. So Massachusetts would reasonably likely net about $100 million + in the first year, and I assume it will be a growth industry. It’s not unrealistic that in the first 5 years the plan would generate over a half billion dollars towards fixing the T and bridges.

  16. The MBTA has been underfunded for years. Somebody has to bite the bullet and find the money. Some of that can come from the gas tax. The people voted against the tax tying into inflation. They did not vote against the House and Senate looking at the gas tax every year. The question that you have to answer is how do we fund the MBTA because you ignored it for so long? When was the last time that managers had to justify their budgets? That could be a start.

  17. Okay, here’s my data nerd comment:

    “As true as that is, the majority of commuters, even those commuting to the central city, do drive, so the direct constituency for transit is not everyone.2”

    Regarding Footnote 2, I don’t think that you can safely draw conclusions about “commute” travel modes from the MPO computer model of overall trip behavior.

    The report you link extracts numbers from their model based on overall travel. But a quick common sense check says that it cannot possibly represent commuter travel. Let’s suppose that rather than 298,000 highway trips it is 256,000 trips assuming that some people car-pool. Where do 256,000 cars park? A back-of-the-envelope calculation says that to park 256,000 cars you need a parking lot that is approximately 3 square miles in area. That’s just a little bit shy of the entire area of the Boston Business District itself. Obviously there are not 3 square miles of parking lot space within downtown Boston — not even a mostly-bulldozed city such as Hartford has that kind of parking proportion. Not even with underground or structured parking is that feasible.

    Also we know that the downtown Boston parking freeze is at 35,556 spaces with another 30,389 allowed in South Boston. Even putting those together and assuming that accessory parking could add some more, you’re hard-pressed to come up with 100,000 parking spaces — much less 298,000.

    Much more likely, the numbers you cite from the MPO models are counting highway travel that occurs at all times of day for all purposes, and it is also counting travel that is only passing through on the way to somewhere else. The same could be true of the transit, walking and biking estimates as well.

    For commute-to-work mode we are probably better off using Census/American Community Survey data instead of MPO modeling.

    1. Wow. My instinct was that the ratio had to be wrong, so I really appreciate your well-informed comment.

    2. We can slice this data a lot of different ways. And I get it that everyone benefits when people take the T and don’t put cars on the street.

      But the basic point stands — a lot of people don’t ride the T and may not appreciate the benefits they are getting from it. If we prefer a census slice to the MPO analysis, the current population survey says that : Only 9.9% of the people in the state use public transit to get to work; within the city of Boston, the number is 33.5%. Of course, in some neighborhoods, the number is higher — and I represent many of those neighborhoods and I’m pleased to fight for better service for them.

      1. Asking who rides public transit to work isn’t quite the same question as asking who rides public transit to work in the Boston Business District, which is the statistic that I think you were trying to get at in the original article.

        It’s true that of Boston working residents, about a third ride the T to work, about 14% walk, and just under 2% bike. That adds up to just shy of 50%. But we don’t know where they are going.

        If you want to get numbers about the specific flows for commuting, then you’ll want analysis from Census products such as OnTheMap, that actually try to ascertain the directions, sources and destinations that people travel on a daily basis.

        Unfortunately, Massachusetts is one of the few states that does not participate in the data collection program necessary to have OnTheMap work properly for our metro regions. I ran into this disappointment several years ago. A year or two ago, I received an e-mail alert informing me that Massachusetts was going to begin participating in the data program. However, I just tried it again, and Massachusetts data still does not appear in the online application.

        Anyway, from a data nerd perspective, that’s something to keep tabs on, whenever they get around to fixing it.

        1. Thanks, Matt. You are right that these are slightly different questions and this is helpful data. The point in the article was that not all people ride the T — everyone benefits, but only a minority are direct users focused on service quality. The census data probably makes the clearest statement on that point.

  18. I have visited Germany quite often in the past few years and relied on the bus/tram system to get around town (Berlin, Cologne, Kiel). The basic fare is at least 2.4 Euros, which currently is about $2.75. The service frequency, reliability, route density, and condition of the vehicles are all outstanding. Increasing the fare for the T and demonstrably putting the additional money into true infrastructure improvement would not be inappropriate. Increasing the tax on downtown and airport parking and earmarking the funds for T infrastructure might also be considered. It is often impossible to get a space in a downtown lot during the day and Logan parking is often full. This indicates excess demand for parking at current prices which could be used to generate more revenue for the T in an economically beneficial manner.

  19. Clearly the T needs more money. Unfortunately gas tax indexing was repealed by referendum.

    Any chance of changing the gas tax to a percentage basis instead of a fixed amount per gallon? That might handle inflation better.

    Also, I think we need a combination of approaches. More money for maintenance and upgrades. A halt to any expensive expansion projects until we can hold what we have.

    But I and many other taxpayers still feel that the T is an inefficient and corrupt organization. And the fact that so many lobbyists that were formerly insiders seem to be involved in all the large contracts is very alarming to me.

    Contractors seem to do a poor job with no accountability.

    I think we need some revolving door and conflict of interest laws that have real teeth.

    And there need to be some real audits, probably followed by criminal prosecutions.

    Dave Teller

  20. Raise fares during rush hour.

    -This is when capacity is most limited. Those who can will use the T at other times instead, reducing crowding and delays and spreading utilization of the system more easily.

    -Many commuters already have subsidies or even free passes. If not, by paying T fares pre-tax commuters are getting a generous discount. These policies make higher fares cheaper for commuters than for others.

    -Commuters can afford to pay more. By definition, they’re working steady jobs. Students, part-timers or the underemployed are more likely to be working odd hours.

    This would provide more revenue, distribute costs more fairly across ridership, and avoid the political resistance of across-the-board fare hikes.

  21. As housing and the cost of living in the Boston area get higher and higher, and salaries remain fairly stagnant, workers are forced to move farther away. I have coworkers in Cambridge who commute as far away as New Hampshire, and North Shore communities, and spend long periods of time commuting. I live in Watertown, and take two crowded buses to work each day. The frustration, stress, and time it takes commuting each day makes it imperative that the transportation system be improved – and affordable.

  22. Raise taxes for heavens sake. I about choked when I heard that bake thought it was “odd” to raise taxes. When I’m in debt I try to raise more revenue to keep my house functioning properly. So why shouldn’t the T? Seriously. We need a 21st century transit system more than we need a tax-phobic governor.

  23. I have read that the costs for bus and T car maintenance are some of the highest in the country. This is probably because of the age of the vehicles. We need a viable public transport system and so the requires investment to bring down running costs. This will require good T management and commitment from politicians; not the faint praise and platitudes about “the public being taxed enough already.” We need leadership from the Governor and the legislature to get an increase in the gas tax or income tax to fund the T at the levels required.

  24. The T is generally reliable. I think the T management blew it this winter. The trains used to run empty at night all the time during big snow storms to keep the tracks clear. I think this concept was lost on current management. I would boil the issue down to this, not the need to complain about the budget, especially when new train cars are already in the queue. This was a lack of corporate memory and incompetent crisis management. There are no new taxes needed. Taxes are not a bandaid that can be applied to every crisis. The T needs and deserves new management as soon as possible. I hope this new blue ribbon commission will see this is a common sense solution to what was a colossal lack of common sense by management.

  25. If “average taxpayer subsidy per bus ride” is relevant, do you think it is fair to also apply a similar metric to highways in the Commonwealth?

  26. Thanks for the information Senator Brownsberger. I think the frustration that many current T commuters have wth the system is that the priorities seem out of whack. If you look at the capital expenditure plan for the next 5 years, there’s a lot of money being put into new lines. Why not use that money to ensure the existing lines are working properly instead? Also, why did the MBTA decide to stop the practice of running the trains all night (with no passengers) during snow storms? This was the practice they used to use for big snow storms in the past, with the frequent trains keeping the tracks clear of snow. With this recent set of storms, they just put the trains away and the tracks all got slammed with snow and ice. Wasn’t this preventable? Sure, it would have cost a bit of overtime for the train personnel, but isn’t that worth it?

    1. Regarding your second question, the reason why the MBTA stopped running trains is because there was an equipment breakdown on the tracks due to third-rail icing.

      After they managed to get the train clear on the Braintree branch, over 2 hours had passed and the storm had overwhelmed their ability to run trains. At that point, it was too late.

      The Orange Line also suffered from third-rail icing and they had to pull trains off the line in order not to risk stranding another one.

    2. Back in the day, the MBTA used to run trains all night long during storms to keep rails clear, and it worked. Back then federal regulations on how many hours an engineer/driver could work were probably much less stringent.

  27. Well-maintained , efficient and expanded public transportation is essential to a viable greater Boston community. We need to commit to whatever it takes to achieve that.

  28. Some un-nuanced observations that might contribute to framing a way forward:

    1) Once you let maintenance go, it will cost you much more than what you didn’t spend to get back to a well-maintained system. Operating a poorly maintained is more expensive than operating a well-maintained system. Without addressing maintenance all other efforts will be first cousins to futile.

    2) I ride the Green Line almost daily. Going in town I’d guess that 1/3 of the riders don’t pay a fare. While I’m sure that some of the flashed cards really are valid monthly passes, I’m less sure that those that just get on have a current monthly pass in their pocket. The catch here is that it would probably cost more to collect the fares than you’d realize in revenue and even if there was net revenue it would be an insignificant contributor to the funding shortfall. On the other hand, if the T were a joy to ride — a pride of Boston — I’ll wager fewer people would try to skate and a social approbation might accrue to those who did.

    3) Putting the above two thoughts together, how about doing small but very visible maintenance projects? Make one car really top-notch. Make one station really superb. Make one stretch of track perfect. Make one information booth a champion of the riders. Show what has to be done and what can be done. Let people follow the project. Be 100% transparent about money spent on the project as the project goes along. Let riders participate and see tangible results, however modest. Take small, visible steps that are easily seen to be in the right direction everyone wants to go.

    Since this is a baseball town, play a game of singles rather than swinging for the bleachers. The fact is that it doesn’t seem we have the (financial) muscle to get the ball that far anyway.

  29. Dear Will:

    Receivership is the only plan I would support. Then you would not have to wish Governor Baker…luck.

    Because you are a member of the Legislature, the only body which has had the power to make the hard decisions all along, I wish I could trust you to back such a proposal. Alas, I don’t…


  30. See editorial in Boston Herald Sunday 2/22/15
    There’s a possible 100 million dollars or so that
    Could certainly be put to better use than on a fantasy railroad to nowhere.

  31. I have been riding the red line, and surrounding bus lines, for 25 years, and have watched the equipment slowly disintegrate and the level of service steadily degrade. Most weeks, in the course of my 3 or 4 round trips by T, service is impacted at least once by a disabled train, switching problem, electrical problem, etc. This is a pretty dismal percentage. I did not find it surprising at all that the whole system crumbled under the unusual stress of extreme weather.

    I have no problem with paying taxes to fix the system. I realize that not everyone is a direct consumer, but everyone in the metro area is a beneficiary. The recent crisis should have made that clear. Imagine putting the 138,000 daily riders onto the streets in cars, and what that would do to everyone’s commuting and parking experience. Even the fraction of riders, such as myself, who have or could afford a car, would be a major strain on the road system. Not to mention the economic impact of having no way to get lower-wage workers — who don’t have much alternative to public transportation — to their jobs. It’s a no-brainer that the T is an integral part of how this city works.

    It might make sense, unfortunately, to cut some of the less-used bus lines in order to use funds more effectively. I’d be interested to see an analysis of what this does to neighborhood economies and rental markets. My guess is that it would further concentrate the high-cost housing zones in a way that could be really problematic. Any thoughts on this?

    If bus riders are paying a lower percentage of the cost of their trip, would it make sense to charge the same amount for subway and bus rides? I’m curious why this hasn’t been done. My assumption was the bus was cheaper because it was cheaper.

  32. Because of the T, our family of four has been able to be a one-car family in Belmont for the past four years. If things continue to be unreliable and overcrowded, we will probably get another car. We are not the only ones in this situation. I would much prefer that we invest in making the T top-notch and attractive… so that more of my neighbors can ditch one of their cars, too!

  33. I will very willingly pay more taxes to get faster, more frequent and more reliable transit. I also think congestion pricing should be seriously discussed for Boston. Just like public financing of schools, the whole state benefits from a good transit system. A stong metroBoston economy is what we need, and that needs a modern transit system.

    1. If you are willing to pay higher taxes that can be more directly achieved by raising fares instead.

  34. Green light MBTA buses at intersections, bus lanes—even short ones—where possible, bus to schedule over its entire route, all can better use fixed lane space to move commuters. The buses, drivers and all the operating expenses are covered. This should be cheap compared with the interchange being built on route 2 at the Concord/Lincoln town line or straightening the Pike in Alston.

  35. Not everyone is willing to pay more taxes for the T, especially the suburbs. Most commuting is from suburb to suburb today. The T is a hub and spoke radial system designed to get riders in and out of Boston. Any expansion must include addressing this issue. I don’t think the CTPS is the proper agency for doing this since they have a vested interest in a hierarchical transportation management structure like the Soviet Union.
    Decisions about where to run the busses in the suburbs made as local decisions will get more support for funding. I know in my community the talk is the T is a Boston thing by and for Boston, why are we paying them for it. Maybe we should have a “Suburban carve out” for public transportation funding.

  36. Particularly now that the MBTA pension system has been reformed, there are no easy ways to find financial fat within the system. Small fare increases (to make us more consistent with nationwide rates) and a gasoline tax or similar revenue stream that has synergistic environmental benefits will be the solution most palatable to the public.

  37. Dear Will, The current level of support for the T is not working. I would think that a modest increase in the State Income Tax is in order. Any tax increase must be non-regressive! It is not only the T, but all of our infrastructure which needs a significant boost. This leads me to ask whether we cannot get Federal Funding to help us recovery from what has really been a natural disaster, on an order similar to a hurricane or a large earthquake. The entire state and regional economy has been affected by this unusually severe weather. Keep up the good work. Sincerely, Kent

  38. I want to echo Marilyn’s point about the importance of the MBTA to non-users. I hope the events of recent weeks have reminded non-users how much they benefit from a smoothly running transit system, but this point needs to be stressed any time anyone in a position of leadership speaks about the problem. An efficient T is essential to solving traffic congestion problems on roads and is critical to the health of the greater Boston economy.

    I do wonder if it isn’t time to think about regional, as opposed to statewide, revenue sources, e.g., a commuter tax.

    1. Could gasoline taxes be regional? Let’s say every station within 495 charges three times the gas tax we pay now. That might address some of the unfairness people who would never use the T might feel while also acting as a congestion fee.

      A lot of the problems with buses around Boston are really problems with car traffic.

  39. We operate one of most costly public transportation systems in the country yet we have all these problems. The solution is not more taxes. The taxpayers in this state are paying enough. The answer is fiscal responsibility. Make cuts at the T and everywhere else, especially within state government. No more cost shifting and debt. Stay within your means and cut out all the political fat and the budget may produce what it was intended to.

  40. A Friend of mine just returned from Tel Aviv, Israel. He said that the system there has an amazing Smart Phone App based fair collection System. It collects fares, parking fees, and does distance based fare collections without much infrastructure operated by the transit authority. They also use a different App for parking meters on all streets.

    They still have fare collection at stations and on the buses, but they need way less investment, and overhead to do the work. Instead of 10 machines in Harvard Square station and 2-4 employees to deal with fare dispensing they would have 2-3 machines and 1 employee and a Wifi hot spot and no smart cards. The cost of collecting the Fares and Parking fees are way lower with the lower overhead and investment in equipment.

    Of course by adopting these kinds of changes in the structure of how the work gets done will cause friction with interests that will resist the changes needed and the reduction in staffing in targeted work tasks. But it is what needs to happen to the MBTA.

  41. Sadly it is very long deferred fleet.replacement that is a core issue. I personally support a higher gas tax to help support this. The MBTA is a key part of our competitive infrastructure as an economy but the debate doesn’t seem to start at this point. If the current crisis helps focus the debate this way it may have been worth the pain.

  42. Receivership is an option that should be considered. Right now the T is dead/bankrupt. Enough is enough.

  43. My big issue is the unreliability of the 74 bus. There has been a lot of attention to the 73, but the 74 is becoming a problem for missed runs in the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. time slot out of Harvard Square. I don’t know if the MBTA reassigns some of the 74’s in that time slot to another run, but there is often a large crowd waiting at that time and some end up taking the 78 and then doing a long walk to the Belmont Center area to get home. Anything you can do about this will be appreciated.

    1. Funny you should complain about the 74, as i stand on Dawes Island night after night watching practically empty 74, 73 and 71 busses heading out of Harvard Square and I am envious! As I cram on to the 86 with so many others I wonder why those lines have so much better service.

      1. The service on other lines always looks better when you are waiting for your own bus. Service on these lines is actually pretty well matched to ridership levels.

        But I agree it could be better for all!

  44. I frequently see two 39 buses back to back. One of these runs should be eliminated.

    Ferry service to Hingham and Salem weren’t mentioned. It is my feeling that neither of these services should be subsidized.

    The prices to ride the Metro in DC are much higher, but many of the riders are government workers who receive monthly metro passes paid for by tax payers.

    New lines to the Hyannis, Springfield and the south coast should not be built. These expansions would require high subsidies because of lack of ridership.

    I have heard rumors about connecting South and North Stations. I think we learned from the big dig that this would be very difficult and would likely incur huge cost overruns.

    The MBTA should not be saddled with the cost overruns of the big dig. Those expenses have nothing to do with MBTA operations.

  45. Boston has recently been reeling from two related disasters: one natural and the other man-made. The combination has tested the resiliency of this City that was spared the impacts of Superstorm Sandy just a year ago. In the last month, Boston has been repeatedly blasted by no less than 4 back-to-back winter storms that have dumped over seven feet of snow and below freezing weather. While this would strain the most resilient of cities (and paralyze a more southern city), Boston has managed to plow it’s roads and keep it’s airport relatively clear. The second disaster to strike the City has been the near total collapse of its aging public transit system in the weeks following the snow storms and low temperatures.

    The MBTA is the third largest transit system in the nation, and the region boasts one of the highest transit mode-splits in the nation: 35% of commuters in Boston take public transit to work while 15% walk. In 2011, The T — including the subway system, buses, and commuter rail — recorded an average of nearly 1.3 million passenger trips each weekday. The storms and accumulating snow piles, frozen switching gear and outmoded electric motors have combined to cripple a heavy rail and trolley system that was extending its reach in recent years with new planned extensions to underserved neighborhoods. Deferred investment in new equipment has been largely blamed for the breakdown, raising questions at the state government level of poor funding decisions that funded pensions and expansion over reinvestment in needed new equipment.

    The sudden resignation of the beleaguered MBTA director only serves to delay the challenge facing Boston: if a modern and resilient public transit system is essential to the future of Boston, how come it is so hard to fund? And are there any alternatives? Boston has spent more on highway infrastructure than probably any other city in the nation: $22 billion to bury the central artery through Boston known as the “big dig” and state residents most recently rejected a ballot initiative to index gas tax (which supports public transit) with inflation. 45% of workers in Boston continue to drive to work. Boston millennials, by contrast, have embraced a range of trendy transit options such as cycling, and on-demand ride services such as Uber and Lyft, and a local startup, Bridj, introduced google-like quasi transit to those willing to pay for a seat on a private shuttle bus that moves techies from their inner suburbs to major employment centers. These high-tech alternatives to public transit might suggest that the new “share economy” promises to “bridge” us into a new paradigm of shared resources, equitably distributed with congestion pricing to solve our mobility problems with clever data-driven solutions.

    My personal experience as a desperate commuter over the last week have left me less than fully convinced. With the few remaining trolleys jammed with commuters, I spent the first two days walking over an hour to work on only partially plowed sidewalks. At further-out stations, lines stretched for miles and passengers waited hours for trains that were simply unable to move. Peter Pan busses were eventually drafted to provide shuttle service. For a change from walking, I signed up for a Bridj ride ($5) from Brookline to Downtown Boston: a distance of 4 miles. An attractive option, complete with on-board WiFi and a guaranteed seat. Unless, of course one actually understood that with the breakdown of the trolley and rail lines, and snow piles, the resulting City streets had been reduced to utter gridlock. My elite shuttle took an hour to cover 4 miles: nearly as long as a walk took the previous days. Public busses, which had fewer mechanical problems, were equally paralyzed by the ensuing congestion caused by the breakdown in the trail and trolley service.

    I wish I could say that “smart” city solutions could solve our current crisis. It has also been noted in local papers that telecommuting, as suggested by the governor, is a nice alternative for some, but is rarely applicable to the working classes who must still be physically present to weld pipes, attend to sick patients, prepare meals or process seafood: we are not all knowledge workers despite the myopia of many of the proponents of cyber solutions.

    No, it strikes me that our solutions are not so easily solved with a new app or easily scrubbed of hard political compromise: Even Uber is relenting in its free market absolutism in the wake of reported price gouging and security lapses. And big data can improve service but cannot fix obsolete rail cars. The last few weeks have reminded me that our burgeoning knowledge economy in Boston is inextricably supported with bricks, mortar, rails, wheels and drivetrains, that must be given equal care and investment if we are to succeed.

  46. I’d like the state Legislature to get to work.

    First, revise city and town assessments according to services provided in each community: rail lines, frequency, and stops, bus lines, frequency, and stops, parking spaces, and ferry trips. Somerville has already jacked up its property tax assessments before GLX has even started running, yet contributes no more to the T budget! Arlington pays more per capita than Quincy despite hugely less service. Cambridge uses anti-car policies and zoning regulations to push more transportation demands on the MBTA without compensating them for it.

    By charging cities/towns based on the services they get, they will put up fewer political fights for low ridership routes. Each of their taxpayers is charged via the assessment for what only a few use. Make the formulas fluid and easily updated, not hard coded in state law requiring the Legislature to fix each time.

    Second, fix Ch. 90 formulas. Cambridge gets road money for workers taking the MBTA! Measure employment load by parking spaces instead! Measure population portion by registered vehicles and trailers. This is much fairer to rural towns.

    Third, fight the Conservation Law Foundation ruling. This pushed overexpansion on the MBTA based on pollution projections that were false. Pollution has fallen since the big dig, not increased as they claimed. Cut plans without sufficient ridership.

    Fourth, stop the MBTA board’s imperialist visions! Empires and corporations throughout history fall from overexpansion!

    Fifth, raise the gas tax, but without automatic increases. The low prices now are a great opportunity to tack on a couple more cents to fix crumbling bridges etc. Just don’t be the highest in the USA.

    Sixth, don’t embrace trickle down economics. That won’t get maintenance more money being at the bottom of priorities. Fix the priorities.

    The T board’s experiment in expanding political power for the T has failed. Instead of political sustainability, make financial sustainability tops.

  47. employers/land owners need to shoulder the tax to facilitate getting their employees/tenants to work. It is that simple- and that politically challenging.

    1. Sue, that is captured in city/town assessments, third highest revenue source for the T.

      What is not captured so much by the T are tremendous property value increases resulting from MBTA investment. The $2.2 Billion Green Line Extension is a windfall for Somerville property owners and developers near stations, yet the MBTA gets nothing in return. Such projects raise rents, forcing low income people to move out, the opposite of “transportation justice”. Perhaps a property (sales) tax surcharge is needed near subway stations.

  48. Take lessons from big European rail systems. The London tube that served an Olympics has higher fares, are based on distance, peak/off-peak times, and discounted users. An English visitor was amazed at how inexpensive T fares are compared to the UK.

  49. Will, As the last few weeks have shown, drivers tend to face terrible congestion in the absence of a functioning transit system. This is especially true in the most densely populated areas. I think the argument for reconsidering some of the thinner routes, especially on the commuter rail, is very strong.

    In the long term , we need more transit. In a world where we are pushing “transit oriented development”, we must have enough capacity. This is a case where attempting to build a constituency for more resources may resonate with segments of the private sector that are natural affiliates of the governor. Those who want to see more resources should talk more with local and regional business and development groups to help enhance that effort.

  50. To encourage more riders to use the T we should think about making it more difficult (expensive) to drive into the city, and we should reduce the fare. More riders equal more money. Fewer cars equal more riders. We should dream big if we expect to solve big problems.

    1. yes. Has there been any ideas to charge drivers to enter downtown Boston similar to those proposed for driving into midtown manhattan.

  51. Will,

    I’m delighted with your representation, positions, and excellent communications.

    On the off chance that this is new information to you, it is unmentioned Financial Scams that have hampered MBTA improvement possibilities, and perhaps the Statehouse might be able to help here.

    Please read the bottom link.

    Here is the Boston Globe REPORTED story

    A new Boston Globe story, The T’s long, winding, infuriating road to failure, purports to be “the true story of the breakdown,” a “a decades-long tale of grand ambitions and runaway costs.”

    and here is the Boston Globe UNREPORTED story, WHICH The Globe KNEW ABOUT.

    Funny how this 2500 word article makes nary a mention of the huge losses that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority made, along with many other easily duped transit authorities, on swap transactions that went massively against them in an environment of seemingly permanent low interest rates.

    The study pegged annual swap losses at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (Boston area) at $25.8 million and suggested that the MBTA will “lose another $254 million on these swaps” before they lapse. The study added that the MBTA was losing money on swaps even before the crisis, with total losses running in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

    And it is not as if the Globe can feign being unaware of the swap losses. It ran an editorial, MBTA needs better terms on interest swaps, in June 2012:

    It is high time that the great state of Massachusetts stood up to New York’s Wall Street Banksters, pushed back these scam contracts, and protected its citizens. I can think of 100 ways to do so; and you probably can too!

    Frank Lowenthal

    1. Thanks, Frank. I agree the derivative contracts got pretty ugly. The issue got a lot of attention in 2009 after the crash. I’m not sure we have a practical way to unwind what remains on the books now though.

      Update: I’ve checked into this and while the swap market got ugly in general, the MBTA never played in the speculative swap market. Their swaps always were in conjunction with borrowing and reduced interest rate exposure rather than increasing it — a fixed-for-floating swap, when combined with a variable rate bond issue, amounts to a fixed rate bond issue. Interest rates have fallen, so the swaps look like losers but if the MBTA had issued fixed rate debt, instead of a package, the result would be the same. There is no basis for renegotiating the swaps that are on the books today.

  52. The signature benefit of living in and around Boston is transportation. It offsets high housing costs, high property taxes, and harsh weather conditions. All of it has been neglected for decades and where once Boston was a leader, we have fallen behind and we need to catch up. We need to upgrade and while we are at it, make it green. That means getting rid of noisy, dirty diesels and going back to electric streetcars. It’s the cost of doing business so there should be a gas tax and a corporate tax and a high income tax on those who can most afford it to support this. T workers have taken enough of a hit. In San Francisco, which rivals our system, riders pay $2.25 per ride. Large businesses and universities need to step up and subsidize fares for their employees. Also, students should be subsidized and low and fixed income riders offered discounts on passes that are good for off-rush hour periods. Low income areas where fewer people have cars should be better served. Those are my suggestions. Thank you!

    1. yes, all good points. I would go one step farther and ask that the Universities (which do not pay taxes) help found the T which would only benefit in the long run.

  53. Thanks for starting this conversation Will, on such a vital public policy.

    The documentary on the building of Penn Station reminded me that the Commonwealth could use one or two extraordinary leaders willing to describe a vision of what the MBTA can be with proper investment, excellent management, and above all, an unshakeable belief that we can rebuild the T into “world class” mass transit system.

    I did not vote for Charlie Baker, but as Governor Baker, he may the best person to lead this state right now; but he sure needs some partners from the public and private sector to do the job of giving us a modern, affordable, and efficient mass transit system.

    If he chose, Baker could go to the private sector and explain why business has to be part of the solution to rebuilding the T. And there will need to be leaders in the State Legislature willing to point to a better future for mass transit infrastructure for all; even at the risk of being voted out of office for doing what they know is a public policy that will benefit generations to come.

  54. Will – as always, thanks for your clarifying, high-content, low-drama posts.

    I don’t disagree with any of your points, and I think my proposed changes at the MBTA are vital for making the hard choices that you describe.

    I’m calling for nothing short of a revolution in terms of how the MBTA thinks about customer service. I’m not talking about politeness (I’m all for politeness – it’s just secondary). I’m talking about customer service defined as how good or bad the T is at doing what it is supposed to do: get people from point A to point B.

    The MBTA simply has no reasonable tools to measure what its service level is. Bus on time? Train stopped? Commuter rail late? How long? How bad is the impact? They simply don’t know! Yes, there are some metrics available, but they are distant from the actual customer experience.

    For the T to get better, it has to know how bad it is now. They need measurement, and they need to apply it to everything.

    I have some metrics in mind (shared them on this blog in the past, even), but I’m resisting repeating them because the specifics aren’t worth debating at this point. Of course, happy to go into detail, ad nauseam, with anyone interested 😉

    P.S. I’m not advocating “reform before revenue.” I’m advocating “reform AND revenue.” This information should guide the investment, and should guide the hard choices.

  55. Will,

    Since the greater topic is transportation, have you driven around lately?

    I’ve harped on this before but the roads are even worse this year than last and we still haven’t had a real spring thaw. I understand the MBTA needs a lot of help, but the roads are going to be just as big a crisis and nobody quite realizes it yet.

    Any talk of using road taxes to fix the MBTA is just another example of the typical dynamic of the rest of the state subsidizing the big city. Most people in the state have no opportunity to use the MBTA, so they shouldn’t be forced to fix all the problems.

    And speaking of roads, here’s an example of why we have problems like this in Massachusetts and the answer is incompetence (pic taken in Cambridge a week or two ago).

    Hopefully everyone can recognize that using plywood to repair a pothole isn’t a mark of a quality job.

    1. You have a pavement fetish here. If this kind of winter ends up being more than a one off someone should talk to Canadian public works departments. When you’re not getting immediate melt after a storm you should leave a layer of packed snow with sand on top. It’s easier on the road. You wouldn’t do that for major roads, but for side streets you should look into it.

      1. A fetish? No. However, as someone who has to commute by car, yes, I’d like quality roads. MA ranks very high in per mile road spending. Do you think the results warrant the the cost? Do you think there’s something wrong with objecting to road taxes being diverted to subsidize a service for the few?

        The plowing isn’t the direct cause of the road problems. The direct cause is substandard road construction. We don’t put a thick enough road base down.

        There are other states that do exactly what you talk about. Colorado is one. Given how straight the roads all are, and that the dry snow dissipates on its own more readily, the technique works there. I have my doubts it would work here.

        1. I don’t know if the kind of pavement or base used differs, but I’m thinking of Halifax, NS, which has similarly strange “cow path” roads to Boston, it also being an old city by North American standards. It’s also wet and drifts up above freezing often, this winter even more than here oddly enough. My observation was only that it seems to work well for them. Their roads never seemed as lousy as the ones here. I’d think if the blade of the plough doesn’t reach the pavement it won’t tear it up. That’s about as direct as it gets.

          But Boston doesn’t get that much snow in a normal year (though you’d never know it the way New Englanders carry on — as I’m fond of pointing out, the best public investment here would be to lace the water supply with antidepressants) and what it gets usually melts off quickly, so it’s probably not worth looking into unless this is some new climate change induced regime we’ll have to adjust to.

          1. I do have some expertise here.

            If the problem were the plows, you’d see cuts or grooves in the surface of the road from the plows.

            You wouldn’t see the pavement heaving up, or manhole covers sinking into the ground.

            Where the plows *might* have an effect is when you see pavement flaking off. The main problem here though isn’t the plows. The plows just aggravate the problem. The route cause is that in MA, we scarify the pavement and put a thin top coat on as a means of resurfacing the road.

            As I said, the real problem is we don’t put a thick enough road base down. That’s how it’s done in cold regions of Japan, Austria, Sweden, etc. That’s also how it’s done in NH. I wouldn’t be surprised if Canada does a better job with that as well.

            1. I agree, my street in Brighton was paved this past fall. The pavement has so many cracks in it already.

              As a layperson, I can see that the asphalt was put on way too thin, which has resulted in early failure.

            2. So is straight up corruption the cause of the cheaping out on paving? I knew an engineering professor who claimed this was the case on highways in Nova Scotia. They cheaped out so their buddies would get repair contracts later.

              The bulges aren’t so bad as the ripped up parts. Driving through Belmont Center yesterday I had to come to a near stop every few meters out of fear some small animal had made his little home in the holes there. Since at least 1 in 10 drivers here are either completely crazy or a total d!#$ you can imagine how well that goes over. God I hate this city.

              So no cheaping out solution where you use crappy paving techniques and compensate by not plowing so deeply, eh? Oh well, it was just a thought.

            3. (it seems the threading on conversations in this forum only goes so deep, so I’m replying here.)


              Yes, quick and cheap describes MA road construction/repair.


              I’m not sure it’s outright corruption (though I wonder) or a lack of oversight and will to do a quality job. It could also be a short term mentality. To do a quality repair on a road will cost more money in the short term, but likely save money in the long term.

              On the other hand, the Big Dig and Rt. 3 expansion project do say that corruption needs to be kept in check.

              And to pull this back to the MBTA, we have to consider whether the same problems apply. I know for a fact that commuter rail trains are sitting idle because they don’t have parts for repairs, which means a lack of revenue.

  56. I’ve always wondered how an organization can have a high volume of customers and yet still hemorrhage money like the MBTA does. I’ve always assumed that there were
    obscene union contacts at play, but this post indicates that this is not the case.
    Does the metro system in DC lose money like ours? What are we doing wrong?
    After the debilitating disruption of these last few weeks, it’s become clear that system maintenance and upgrades must take precedence over expansion plans. Even drivers have to see how much their commute depends on a functional mass transit system.

  57. No reduction of service, that means late night service and weekend commuter rail services

  58. Also Grant almost every mass transit system in the world runs at a lose. The only exception to this are systems that own huge amounts of real estate.

  59. I am glad you are looking into solutions for the MBTA problems! I ride the commuter rail into Boston everyday, and the last month has been horrible for commuters and residents. I believe the services and trains need to be upgraded and we need to raise taxes to fix the problems. How about raising the gas tax?

  60. “the direct constituency for transit is not everyone”

    This is a vacuous argument. Not everyone rides an actual MBTA bus, no, but everyone does enjoy an immense benefit by participating in the economy that rests on those busses and trains. Pittsfield received almost twice as much state aid per capita as Boston, and THREE AND HALF times as much per capita as Watertown. I wonder where all the money comes from to pay for those subsidies? If the state is unable or unwilling to provide the essential services that keep this economy humming, then maybe we should consider shifting revenue from the state back to the localities.

    1. Are you suggesting the the Pittsfield economy isn’t performing well because they have no real public transit system and therefore the residents need more state aid per capita?

      That seems pretty tenuous.

      I do agree that that the state should consider shifting revenue back to the localities. Along those lines, the localities that directly benefit from the MBTA should be shouldering more of the burden of running the MBTA.

  61. Opportunities for revenue gains-

    Commuter rail punch cards are taken and punched quickly – people often are getting extra rides our of them. It’s a sloppy system. Consider moving to an electronic scanner.

    On Marathon Monday, people load the trains from all doors at surface stations. Fares are not collected at all. Create a temporary point of entry to these stations and collect fares.

  62. Only a few stops have shelters for those standing and waiting.
    In Stockholm they are provided and maintained by companies using them as advertising space -why not here?

    1. Stockholm is a real city. Most of Europe appreciates it’s citizens in a way the US cannot even imagine. why ? There is no money in caring about people.

  63. The MBTA has long needed updating and has been bypassed for years. the people who suffer most are the low wage earners who depend on the T. They can not work from home.
    May people rely on the t to get to hospitals and doctors.
    the wage increases of the staff is distressing

  64. During the baseball season I observe the Kenmore Station letting people through without paying. I understand it is a safety issue.

    Why not ask the Red Sox to contribute significantly to the cost of the MBTA? They are encouraging, and wisely, that spectators NOT drive…the new Yawkey Station is a symbols if that advice, they should pick up dome of the tab.

  65. It is a known fact that politicians prefer new projects to maintaining old ones. Too often we pay the price for higher costs of repair of run down systems or accidents. There should be a department, of appointed techies who independently review public systems, like roads, bridges, rails, and so on, and report to a higher level than the department responsible for the system being reviewed. The techies could be retired professionals, without political attachment or affiliation, volunteering their time. It could be an “honorable” appointment.

  66. I have a lot to say, being a heavy T user, having no car, and depending entirely on the T to get everything I need to do done. Given the very tight budget the T operates under, the focus should be on eliminating or solving blatant problems/examples of waste. Living on the 71 bus route, there is one example of waste that I and many others are very familiar with: the problem of no buses at all for between 40 – 80 minutes at times, then 2 or 3 or 4 back to back, one of which is usually empty. I understand somewhat why this happens (the overhead electrical lines) but there has to be something that can be done to solve this problem in the short to medium term time frame. Thanks. More feedback to come.

  67. The state needs to doubledown and invest heavily in the MBTA to bring it into the 21st century. Pass a gas tax increase, and allocate a good chunk of the revenue to the T. I know we failed to pass it less than a year ago, but some key things have changed since. I think it’s critical to keep the T fares where they are and not raise them.

    1. Passing a gas tax on already overtaxed citizens who do not have the option of using public transportation is not the answer. Much of the working public need their vehicles to get to work – social workers providing home visits, personal aids to elders, visiting nurses, pet care providers and those who work outside of the range of public transportation should not be penalized for trying to get to work.

  68. Thank you senator. Our public transit system has historically been little-city/ provincial paying big-city MBTA salaries riding on the backs of middle and working classes forced to pay unending rate increases for reduced services. The way MBTA has handled public transportation during snow emergencies is a disgrace and has hopefully opened the eyes of those who were unaware of daily frustrations experienced by those who depend upon public transportation. It’s ironic that fnes being imposed upon citizenry for not shoveling public sidewalks close to their residences yet the City has completely ignored sidewalks supporting public spaces and civic building *only*. Citizens are forced into the street to flag down busses when other transportation systems are non-functional . Empty busses passing citizens trying to stay warm insuide bus kiosks who are unumable to scale snow mounds in time to get into the street to flag down the empty bus. Last night arounmd 6PM I witnessed as 57 bus diid not even slow down to check a bus kiosk where 2 citezens were unable to saale an ice covered snow mound in time–and the driver, stopped at a traffic light 20′ ahead ignored the two desperately running trying to get the drivers attention, a police car watching on did nothing to help. Expect a backlash as frustrated citizens leave the state forever, giving up on lack of public transportation and poor services in general

  69. 1. Am I wrong in reading between the lines of this email that the new Governor isn’t going to be much help improving the T, except perhaps in pushing for cutting back on economically inefficient routes?

    2. Some of the recent debate (and a certain Globe editorial) bothers me in describing the T’s problems as system failure when they should merely say their service is substandard. It’s a distinction that’s important to make because the latter characterization allows for improvement. I appreciate very much all your efforts as a State Senator to do what can be done.

    3. The idea of cutting back heavily subsidized routes doesn’t appeal to me. (My regular routes are 71, redline, and 350 so I think this is not so much self interested bias.) As a T user you primarily care about the route you take day to day, to get to work, say, but the places it could potentially take matter too. When you look for another job, look to date someone, or look for recreation or to appreciate nature the capabilities the T offers you improve your quality of life (depending on your income perhaps we could bandy about the word freedom). But in the U.S., apparently the mainstream answer to this is that we should all get cars and drive everywhere. That’s too bad. I don’t have to tell you why. It’s too bad the majority of voters seem not to see transit as important enough to fund well or give themselves the easy out of cynicism, telling themselves it would just be sending good money after bad or if Steve Jobs ran the T things would be different or some such BS. I guess my point 3 is even if some lines weren’t good uses of scarce funds, at the same time I hate the thought of any bus or train line being cut. Raise my taxes!

  70. Hi Will,
    It’s been a long time since I offered any ideas about transport, but three quickly stand out. First is that the gas tax will produce less income over time as cars become more efficient. You and I once had a discussion about shifting this to a different basis: miles traveled, displacement capacity of engines, etc. Some way that would produce more income from those having larger cars and less efficient cars. Second, instead of cutting services for low ridership on public transport, you can introduce the small jitney buses so common in other countries. These are cheaper to buy, to maintain, and to help traffic flow too. Third, it is unfair to penalize those who use the T without getting funds from those who benefit and don’t use the T. I think low parking rates encourage car usage, and should be raised especially at meters. Tickets should not cost less than a parking garage!!Finally it is basic Management policy to take care of maintaining infrastructure. Decades of neglect have paid off – massive help should come from general taxes and not on the backs of the riders. Unlike your opinion, I feel MA should take more advantage of low interest rates and borrow for infrastructure improvement, both public transport and road and bridge maintenance. Small steps like many outlined here are still visible and have an impact.
    Sam Ellenport

    1. Thanks, Sam.

      I think even with the low rates, the T is fairly far out on its credit limb.

      The “last mile” service is where new technology can make a big difference. It’s the upstart bus and car companies and ridesharing services that are using technology to match people with resources that may play a bigger role if we focus public transit on core routes.

  71. I think everyone knows that the problem is too much money has been budgeted for expansion projects with a questionable return on investment while spending was slashed on replacing old trains and improving system reliability. Repair and maintenance costs have risen to keep those old trains running. That is additional savings that can be allocated to improving the fleet.

    The first step is to put all expansion projects on hold while a careful cost benefit analysis is done on all expansion projects. Those projects that come up short should be cancelled and the funding for them should be shifted to replacing the aging fleet of trains and buses. This won’t solve the systemic problems, but it will staunch the wasteful spending and refocus money to areas where the need is greatest.

    Once the governor and legislature are reassured that the wasteful MBTA expansion projects have been cut, it should be easier to justify additional investment in transportation expansion projects that make economic sense.

    We all know that without reliable public transportation, Boston can’t continue to grow. The business community has a vested interest in providing reliable public transportation to its workforce and it should be a valuable ally in dealing with the Governor. The real estate developers will also want to see public transportation improved otherwise how are they going to sell those multi-million dollar downtown condo’s and luxury apartments? These two constituencies alone should have more than enough clout to make the Governor see the light.

  72. Driving into Boston, as I had to for medical appointments when the T was shut down or on a limited schedule, brought home to me what a difference public transit makes for motorists. Mid-morning trips that usually take 20 minutes took an hour or more because of 11 a.m. rush-hour-like traffic jams.

    When motorists’ taxes help support public transit, part of what they’re getting is easier driving. Part, of course, is a thriving business sector. Even if the bosses drive, those who do much of the work ride the T.

    Looking toward a future where the T would be the most reliable element of a transportation plan, rather than the least reliable, practically everybody would use public transit, as is the case in New York. In the Blizzard of ’78, the T was the first element to come back. It has to be that way again.

  73. There are so many things I could say on this subject. The MBTA was a disaster and disgrace even before the snow storm. It’s insane that the T ran better during the blizzard of ’78 than it has in 2015. When I lived in Madrid in ’92 and ’93, their metro was consistently on time, to the minute. How is it that a less wealthy country could do this more than 20 years ago, and we still do not have anything like this in one of the most important cities in the world’s only remaining superpower???

  74. Hey Will:

    We need to start more over the road tolling in this area. The technology is there and privacy has been overtaken by technology. If folks want to drive around this area, at least inside 128 and on 128, they should pay for it more than simply for the gas, insurance and so forth they cover.



  75. HI Will,

    I agree with your overall assessment. The governor is going to need some creative solutions without raising income taxes that place disproportionate burden on communities outside of metro Boston. What would you think of:

    – Congestion fee (as modeled in London and Stockholm) that asks motorists who drive during peak periods in high density areas to pay for the privilege.

    – Adding tolls on north and south arteries, so that those motorists bear similar burden as the ones to the west.

    – Funding alternative transportation options such as community paths and protected bike lanes that encourage safe biking and walking options.

    – Finally, increase the gas tax, but keep funding for local communities to address their own transportation issues. Boston metro should be treated as one “community.”

    What do you think?

    1. I love the idea of raising the gas tax and turning it back to communities, I think that’s the way to go.

      I’m also for tolling the North South routes.

      Congestion fee may not be fair until we have better T service for people to go with.

    2. Dear Kim,

      I fully support your point of view. As a urban community, I feel that we should do the following:

      1, encourage people to be green and efficient. If we can add some form of traffic surcharge for Gas stations around route 128 and within, that will encourage residents to be less reliant on cars.

      2, To compensate that, we need to have a better public transportation system with a sustainable revenue and cost structure. For an example, I am willing to pay double for MBTA link pass(currently at 75$ a month) if MBTA can reduce my commute time from 1 hour to 30 minutes. Everyone’s time is much more valuable!

      3, A systematic redesign should be in order ( hopefully we can get a boost from the bid for Olympic 2024) to extend the rail transportation system beyond the current congestion point (such as Alewife)

      4, Add the element of efficiency, competition and keen over-sight into all MBTA and DOT projects. Let’s face it, the Big Dig took 10 years to plan and 17 years to construct. How many 27 years I can have in my whole life? Construction union has been and will be a big problem in any public projects. As I also observed an 10-year dragging-on project on route 95/128 Exit-27 expansion. All union workers need to be efficient and competitive. They should not be the exclusive bidders in public projects.

  76. I am not qualified to speak about funding or policy. Since the train lines are ver limited in scope I hope that the bus routes will not be forgotten about. I commute between Brighton Center and Harvard Square on the 86 bus, which is always overcrowded and underserved during peek times including weekends. The B line is so slow that many of us get ourselves to Harvard Square to take red line to go downtown on weekends.

    I realize no one wants to hear this but buses and trolleys should not be the main thing we have to depend on. There should have been several more subway lines built in the preceding decades. It is probably too late now but I do not see how we can sustain growth and development without them.

  77. First, the corporate and business communities depend upon effective public transportation. I see little leadership coming from that community. What gives?

    Second, equity demands that the debt burden placed upon the T by our current Governor in the Weld/Celluci era be returned to the State.


    Follow link and check wages of workers. I randomly put in the common last name of “Brown” without meaning to single anyone out.

    Will talked of large benefits being negotiated, I think some of the salaries are out of line also. I saw several painters making six figures and drivers making close to six figures. And overly generous benefits can be negotiated down in future negotiations. I really don’t think public workers should be making more in early retirement than the average worker is making while working. I am not suggesting starving pensioners; I am suggesting they be limited in how above the norm they should be allowed to collect. Sometimes I wonder why the wolves are guarding the hen house.

    I would like to see a cap on pension benefits.

    1. One of the practical approach is cap the pension at metro Boston level median income.

  79. I expect our new Republican governor to dismiss the idea of new revenue for the woefully underfunded MBTA, but I have been very disappointed to hear the same rhetoric from Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Rosenberg.

    The problem facing the MBTA is not primarily one of management: it is one of funding. When the newest trains on the T are older than the oldest ones in the NYC subway (a state mentioned in the Globe recently), we have a problem, and “management” doesn’t fix old parts; Money does.

    With regard to this needed investment, the inevitable question is, from where will the money come? Massachusetts has been slashing budgets of social services for years (including in the recent “budget fix” passed by voice vote in the Senate), so cuts to other programs would be an unacceptable and unconscionable solution. What Massachusetts needs is a progressive income tax, as groups like Progressive Massachusetts have called for. Massachusetts currently has a flat tax, far too regressive of a system for a nominally liberal state like ours. The MBTA has a disproportionate positive impact for those with the most wealth in the state: their businesses (and investments in businesses) wouldn’t make much profit without the infrastructure provided by the MBTA. So it’s time for them to pay their fair share.

  80. The commuter rail Fitchburg line is undependable resulting in the Ailwife Garage being full by 7:00 AM. A good portion of the Alewife Garage is in disrepair. How practical would it be to have the garage fully operational?

  81. I am always amazed at how inexpensive it is to ride the T. I fully support the increase of fares to help cover the cost. Compared to car ownership, it’s a steal and I’m happy to pay more of my share. Additionally, I am also supportive of other transportation taxes – gas tax, excise tax, etc. – to pay for the MBTA. Let’s make it fiscally viable.

    1. I second that. I’m always amazed by how much more expensive Asian and European transit is – and it shows in their higher quality, reliability, and how clean and well maintained they are. I read somewhere that zone based pricing helps London to recover 90% and Singapore to recover more than 100% in fares. Our MBTA can barely hit 50%.

      Along those lines, Will, do you know what makes buses and trolleys require so much more in subsidies than the heavy rail and commuter rail?

      Amtrak managed to successfully turn around a subsidized NEC line and turn it into a profitable and well loved train system in spite of political pressure. Yes, we can do the same for Boston area public transit.

      1. Asian and European systems are not necessarily more expensive. It might be pricier to buy a single trip ticket or to pay cash, much like we make it more expensive to pay cash instead of using a CharlieCard.

        Here’s some sample fares:

        EU 1.80 ($2) for a Paris Metro ticket single ride;

        EU 1.50 ($1.70) – 2.0 ($2.25) for a Madrid Metro ticket single ride. Monthly passes as low as EU 54.6 ($61) in Zona A (covering the city) for an adult.

        Tokyo uses a purely point-to-point fare system so I picked out a sample trip: Shibuya to Asakusa on the Ginza line. That’s about 31 minutes of travel time, and yet it only costs 237 yen ($1.98) and a monthly pass for the trip is 8,440 yen ($70).

        If anything, these very high quality subway systems are cheaper to ride than the MBTA. I’m sure you could pick out trips to the suburbs for which the rates rise, but the same goes for the commuter rail here.

        Just to focus on Tokyo a bit more: there are something like eight separate transit operators in that metro region, handling 40 million rides PER DAY. IIRC, five of the operators are privately owned, and three of them are public. ALL of them are profitable operationally.

        Their secret is not charging outrageous fares. Their secret is simple: making efficient use of their resources and generating ridership by making it easy, fast, effective and desirable to use the system.

        In Tokyo, wherever you find a train station, you will also find a great deal of human life and activity going on around it. The stations are the hubs of the city, being huge retail, commercial and economic centers at the heart of neighborhoods. The Tokyo metro is profitable because the land uses around the station areas generate ridership ALL day, ALL the time, going ALL directions.

        This is in contrast to American-style transit, where we seem to try and isolate train stations as much as possible, putting them in unwalkable places, or surrounding them with giant deserts of parking lots, vacant undeveloped lots, or low-value uses. Just look at all the vacant lots surrounding the Orange Line on the Southwest corridor, even thirty years later!

        We demand that our government pay millions and billions of dollars to build and maintain these transit systems, but then we do not allow the land around them to be developed to its highest and best use. As a result, the transit investment goes to waste, and the infrastructure either sits empty for most of the day, or only sees much travel in one direction at a time.

        In addition, we massively subsidize the main competition to transit, in terms of gasoline, free parking, highways, and the numerous access roads required to make highways useful. So we literally pay people not to use the transit that we built. And then we wonder why ridership levels are anemic and can’t even come close to covering costs. In Japan, they don’t subsidize highways the way we do. They build highways, absolutely, and very well. But they’re not massively overbuilt, and you pay a toll to use them. Same goes for parking — when I was there I saw some of the most fascinating mechanisms for managing parking, from little 1-2 space lots to large parking garages. They generally do not allow free on-street parking in Tokyo, and when you want a piece of land to store your car, you find an off-street lot and pay for it.

        So if you want to know why Tokyo can run transit profitably while Americans cannot, just look at our whole array of public policies designed to subsidize automobile travel and sprawling development at the expense of everything else. That’s really it. Every dime of subsidies for automobiles also forces us to put a dime into subsidies for public transit, or else give up on maintaining the transit system entirely.

        1. Matthew,

          Very good point. I think besides a gradual change of policy for more public-transit oriented development, and a life-style less dependent on personal automobile. We also need a MBTA infrastructure that keeps cost/benefit ratio checked to keep it feasible for long term.

  82. Several random comments,since this is too big a can of worms to really tackle the whole thing.

    Would figures on the extent to which highway transportation is subsidized be useful. I seem to remember that in the past when all of the highway subsidies are totalled they exceed transit subsidies.

    And the figures given here on transit vs car seem to indicate that well over 40% of the the trips into town are on the T. That’s a lot of trips not using cars except maybe to drive to T parking lots.

    Maybe charging tolls on inbound highway traffic is theoretically a good idea, but it would take years to become politically acceptable.

    Would a good look at the T’s procurement processes be a possibility. There always seem to be delays in delivery of new equipment, and operating problems after it arrives. Is it flaws in the designs that vendors bid on, problems of overseeing manufacturing, poor vendor selection – or what.

    If our debt service is not out of line, what are we getting for it. Do other cities get new equipment or infrastructure repairs as opposed to shares of a major highway project’s shortfall?

    Leaving the Olympics out of it for a moment, what do we want transportation in the Boston area to look like in the next five, ten, fifteen years? Could this be costed out, project by project and priorities developed? I am sure that when the expansions were committed to, no one thought that these would come at the expense of maintaining the core services.

    Enough for now.

  83. Oops – embarrassed to say my math was off – transit trips are just below 1/3 of total trips – still a pretty large number.

  84. Has there been any thought put into snow sheds or some other form of protection for the exposed portions of the red and orange lines? I’ve seen snow sheds protect railway lines in Avalanche prone areas. A similar concept could help keep the snow off the tracks for less money than going underground. Given how many people ride these 2 lines alone, they seem unique in how they can choke the entire system if they fail.

  85. The new governor played a key role in loading the MBTA up with Big Dig debt. Members of the republican gubernatorial administrations also found refuge and a quicker retirement at the MBTA. Just the facts.

  86. Thanks for inviting us to share our thoughts.

    Your description does describe a bleak situation, in terms of the problem and the political realities that circumscribe solutions.

    A significant fare increase may be the only way to get more money to pay for some immediate improvements, such as replacing all the motors in subway cars, new third rail heaters, and fixing or replacing switching equipment.

    I think there /might/ be a little more appetite among the public for a gas tax increase, given the experience this winter. It does sound as though the governor and speaker are both opposed, so at least one would have to be persuaded. It is a pity that all the campaign money that was spent to save casinos wasn’t spent on keeping an indexed gas tax.

    One recurring T problem has been buying equipment that doesn’t work as promised, for example the Rotem commuter rail cars, the Green Line Breda cars, and I believe there have been others. This aspect of their operations needs work. I wonder if it would make sense for the T to develop a long-term relationship with a single manufacturer?

    There needs to be more attention to buses. It seems they held up to the cold, but were stuck in traffic like everyone else. The routes they travel need to be cleared curb to curb, something the T needs to coordinate with localities. I wish we had as much emphasis on creating bus lanes as we do bike lanes.

    Shouldn’t, perhaps, the costs of all snow removal be borne by drivers? Use the gas tax for that, and give cities and towns some relief. (I know, no new taxes, but still.)

    Somewhat related, maybe the way the excise tax is calculated should be based on vehicle weight, not value. Heavier vehicles cause more wear and tear on roads.

    I hope the governor’s panel takes a look at how the T performed this year vs. 1978. I do not remember the Red and Green lines being shut for such extended periods.

  87. Will, you always impress me as looking for the real solution. The MBTA is a tough problem. 1. I’d like to see the whole political establishment fess up that for the last 20-30 years ALL have been kicking the can down the road, putting more requirements on the T without the funds to do them. 2. WE in eastern MA need to pay for the system. The fact is that user fees are very low relative to the rest of the nation. I would gladly pay a few % tax plus higher fares to make the T run for the long term. 3. Stop expansion until core services can be assured. Be brutal on cost/benefit analysis. Examples: is the Greenbush line cost effective and should the T expand to Fall River? 4. Lets make sure we recruit professional staff. Patronage is legion in Mass. as in the recent embarrassment in the probation department. I don’t know how the T stacks up in this, but it should be verified. 5. the T’s contractors should be held accountable to meet the terms of their contracts. This means the T must have enough staff and resources to adequately oversee construction and operations contacts. I suspect that these have been cut to the bone. Without proper oversight the contractors will do a shoddy job, such as the Alewife Garage where the operations and maintenance are a total embarrassment.

    This is a tough job and the legislature can only set the overall tone, expectations and sense of accountability. Making it work is really the job of the executive branch and the MBTA board. You may want to consider if the board concept isn’t working that the running of the T may need to be brought under more direct control of the transportation department?

    Good luck with it and thanks for asking, and for trying to make it better!

    1. Mike, you are spot when you say:

      I’d like to see the whole political establishment fess up that for the last 20-30 years ALL have been . . . putting more requirements on the T without the funds to do them.

      We are entirely guilty of wanting to have our cake and eat it to — trying to please everyone at the same time: trying to please those who want more service and also those who don’t want to pay more. If we cannot come up with the money, and that’s the weight of political opinion now, we absolutely have to let them cut service and expansion ideas so that they can give adequate resources and management focus to what remains.

  88. Will, the April 27 Boston Herald cites a study by the T that there were 39,937 “missed trips” on the bus routes last year, mostly due to worker absences. Also, in FY14 the average train driver was taking 68 days off a year. Do you think this is accurate? If so, is the T taking any action to improve this situation?

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