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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

  11. “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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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???

  25. 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.



  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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?

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

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

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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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