For those who care about the future of public transit, the MBTA’s 2040 planning process is an important one to watch and participate in.
Building consensus about long term investments is always difficult and the process has taken longer than originally envisioned. But we should expect that, over the next couple of months, a draft document will emerge that will signal where the T is headed.
The T’s short and medium term direction is crystal clear — fix the existing system. For all modes — subway, bus and commuter rail — riders want better reliability above all else. The T is investing billions in its multi-year program to replace ancient and unreliable vehicles, switches, tracks and signals. Some of those investments increase capacity as well as improving liability. Improvements cannot come soon enough.
For the bus riders who account for about a third of MBTA trips, crowding and frequency are top concerns. The T is working with municipalities to make changes that will help speed buses through traffic — dedicated bus lanes and transit signal priority where high numbers of bus riders face delays. Belmont and Watertown will benefit from one such project that is underway.
By contrast, the T’s longer term direction for improvement is murky at this stage. The document that should soon emerge from the 2040 planning group will shed important light on how thinking within MassDOT is developing.
The controversy about when to build a new “West Station” in the I-90 interchange project reflects a particular lack of consensus about the role of the commuter lines in supporting urban service. Some advocates — me and other legislators among them — hope that our existing rail commuter corridors can be used to provide more frequent subway-like service. Others are pushing for the limitation of close-in stops so that we can provide faster service to further out communities, including communities like Worcester where the housing costs are much lower than in Boston.
Unfortunately, the 2040 process will not resolve this particular controversy. A separate study of how to maximize beneficial use of our rail assets was commissioned last year and recently has begun with a firm completion deadline of December 2019. As a result, decision-makers will have to find a formula for moving forward on the I-90 project without the benefit of clear guidance from a consensus long-term vision. Harvard has recently made a proposal for an interim station, which would improve service, while leaving a decision about a true urban rail hub for later.
Certainly, transit riders in Brighton have one of the more difficult close-in commutes. The Boston College branch of the Green Line is terribly slow and crowded, as is the 57 bus that replaced the old Watertown branch of the Green Line. Improving that commute — both through Green Line improvements and through expansion of urban rail service — is a central priority for me and other legislators serving that area .
It is important to distinguish the MBTA’s 2040 process (which may include some “big ideas”) from the region’s Long Range Transportation Plan, which also extends to 2040. The LRTP is fiscally-constrained — project costs have to fit within available funds. The 2040 LRTP focues on smaller projects and maintenance. Major transit expansions need to find major new funding sources.
As the draft 2040 proposal comes out, and as the urban rail study gets underway, the T will be creating many opportunities to engage. I encourage T users to get involved — I think most will find it more reassuring than frustrating. While there are no easy fixes, there are a lot of good people — both professionals and citizen planners — trying to move in the right direction.
Transit Matters, a private group of transportation planners and advocates, rolled out an exciting vision for regional rail — a phrase meaning frequent service on a regional rail network (to be contrasted with limited rush hour service offered by commuter rail).
The vision is appealing. It is generally the direction I’d like to see us move in. It is a timely proposal which will become an important part of the planning conversation outlined above.
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