Future of the MBTA

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.

You can subscribe for notice from the T of coming 2040 planning meetings here.

Advocates Propose Regional Rail System, February 27, 2018

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

Join the Conversation

39 Comments

  1. Thanks for participating in the Alewife Corridor Symposium. We were your parents’ neighbors on Russell Ave. until 1993. Call or email me, I have some ideas about how the MBTA and DOT could creatively consider helping with future alternatives in Alewife and the west MBTA station re: potential air rights development sales to offset the need for new collaborative infrastructure with the rising water issue. I chatted up old friend Mark Boyle at MBTA real estate/DOT when recruiting panelists for the symposium.

  2. Many construction projects are going on in the MetroWest area, especially in Watertown. Are there any state regulations that require some kind of monetary yearly tax or monetary charge for each additional living unit that will be added (or some kind of formula that projects increased traffic) – a charge that is specifically to be used for transportation and related infrastructure? Even better: builders must create/provide public transit to and from their site to major transit hubs…. Dream on….

    Thanks for being involved and sending us the news.

  3. How about eliminating some of the BU stops on the BC T line? They don’t need a stop every two blocks.There are something like 18 stops between where I lived in Brighton and worked in the Back Bay. My son who also used to commute to school in the Back Bay preferred to walk a half a mile to the C line for that reason.

      1. On Sunday night at 6:30, all westbound through traffic on Comm Ave in Allston by The Paradise was being squeezed into one lane, what a mess it was. The new bike lane to the right of cars, a tour bus parked in front of the Paradise and a long lines of traffic trying to turn into Brookline at every traffice light caused a bottleneck that almost reached the BU Bridge. On a Sunday night!

        I was coming from a soccer game in Cambridge and several people watching the game were talking about how ineffective the new isolated bike lane will be and what I mess it is going to cause. I hope we are wrong. I had the same conversation with a different group of people a week earlier.

        A few times a year, I need to go to the Theater district early mornings from Brighton Center. Weather permitting, the fastest way to get there is by bicycle. Riding a bike on during rush hour is quite exciting. The T takes an hour, provided everything goes smoothly, ha. On my bike, it takes a half an hour. It’s embarrassing that riding a bike is faster than public transportation.

      2. That article is from Oct. of 2014. I never heard about a public meeting on the subject: my guess is that this BU publication’s purpose was to warn the students and get them to protest the loss of their convenient extra stops on the Green line at the meeting.The article also notes that federal funding would run out for this project in 2015. What is happening with this proposal now?

          1. Here is the most recent projected timeline for the Comm Ave reconstruction project, provided by the city:

            Sidewalks Comm Ave WB & EB April 2018 to November 2018

            Sidewalks Comm Ave WB & EB ST. Paul to BU Bridge October 2018 to May 2019

            Bike Lanes April 2018 to November 2018 & April 2019 to May 2019

            Utility Crossing under the Green Line April 2018 to May 2019

            Micromilling, Adjusting Structures, Final Paving, Final Markings April 2019 to June 2019

            Trees, Loam & Seed, Bike Racks, Benches, Trash Receptacles April 2019 to June 2019

            Traffic Signal Improvements April 2018 to May 2019

            Punch List Items Late May 2019 -June 2019

            ** This schedule assumes working 2-10 hours shifts and no Project issues

            Andrew Bettinelli
            Chief of Staff
            Office of Senator William N. Brownsberger

  4. I look at the MBTA more as a living museum of the history of public Transportation. We have almost every known method of mass transit with the exception of the Cable Car. Let’s start with the buses to Belmont and Watertown and North Cambridge – why do these things run on a wire and not just a regular bus? Then there is the Subway system – to my knowledge there is no cross tracks to move equipment from one line to another ending up with 4 sets of track maintenance vehicles and we have at least 2 completely different types of subway vehicles the green line and blue line run on wires while the orange and red line run on a third rail with the exception of the Mattapan line which still uses cars from the 40’s , North and South Stations are not connected except through a track that runs through Cambridge along MIT. The commuter rail is at least making some progress but is still using many of the original passenger cars that were bought in the 70’s .

    There needs to be a long term goal of compatible equipment and a interchange for the subway system to move equipment from one set of tracks to another.

    I would like to address better commuter access points where people can leave there cars in area’s along 128 and 495 where they can park their vehicles and take the train to Boston. These need dedicated off ramps – like Anderson Station off rt 93 we could do one like that in Weston at the site of the old Massachusetts Broken Stone which sits next to the Fitchberg line. Better access to the providence parking -set up parking off 495 in Lowell Billerica on the Lowell line. This could also be done with the fitchberg line , Worcester line providence line and the future Fall River line.

    I would also like to see the Red line extended much like the green line is to River side using the existing Rail Trail to give access along Mass Ave though Arlington, Lexington and Bedford where a large parking facility could be built along Hartwell Ave

    1. It is definitely an issue that we have so many different types of rail. One step in the right direction is the T’s decision to replace 100% of the Red Line fleet, so at least we won’t have several different generations of cars running on that line.

  5. Many thanks. The MBTA’s performance is key to lowering housing costs and I appreciate your making its planning process easier to follow.

  6. I just wanted to make a comment about the buses running on cantenary wires – while the wires may not look great and there are some particukar issues that I consider minor – they are electric. This means they are quieter, more energy efficient, and environmentally cleaner than any current option. Electric buses without wires exist; but I haven’t heard of the MBTA considering them. I would prefer the current electric buses on the 71 and 73 lines to diesel or natural gas buses.

    Thanks for keeping us informed.

    1. Agree entirely. The electric buses are a much better alternative to diesel or CNG or hybrid. They are essentially street cars without rails. (The MBTA refers to them as “trackless trolleys”. When I have visitors from out of state, they are always impressed and jealous of our electric buses. We need more of them.

      1. I agree too. Diesel exhaust, although reduced in the newer buses, is a very hazardous pollutant. Keeping electric buses on these high service routes with many homes is a public health priority. In the long run, we should be looking to expand electric buses and there is interest among many planners in doing so — the issue battery and charging technology.

  7. Good public transit is essential for the future of the Boston metropolitan area.

    Unlike Uber and Lyft, the government MUST be the the owner of all autonomous vehicles allowed on the greater Boston streets and highways to avoid much worse traffic congestion. Public autonomous vehicles will add a great public transit component.

  8. The T is a drain on the State. Bus drivers get paid more than most collage degreed people
    pensions for the supervisors are out of sight

  9. Thank you Senator Will.
    The 2040 LRTP is a major step forward, long overdue.
    However, a “2040 Commuter Rail Transportation Plan” is so badly needed to stop the building up of traffic that is asphyxiating Boston and all major highways.
    Agree and support your efforts towards a “2040 CRTP”. We need bold moves. Otherwise traffic congestion will be such a burden on commuters that families and all citizens will suffer. One ought to look at I-90, I-95, I-495, Rte 2, 3 and others.

  10. Maybe the MBTA should be consolidated so the T will handle the steel wheels on steel rails issues, and several new independent regional authorities will take over bus operations and service delivery. The 2040 T should not look like the 1940’s T

  11. Is Gov. Baker onboard with the funding? He has been an obstacle in the past. We have neglected the MBTA for so long that I believe that whatever we do is too little, too late. I’d like to see a ballot question about a temporary moratorium on all new development in Boston on the ballot as a way to speed up this process. 8-10 years is way too long. Boston cannot function without adequate mass transit twitch the current amount of new development that is in the pipeline.

  12. As I read this week , our T system is tourist attraction of an old system. There may be new cars but the tracks are of the 19th century.
    We live in a commonwealth state. Update the entire rail system is good for all of us.

    Right now, the current governor hates to ask for any type of tax hike. AS long as he is unwilling to think outside the box, we will still ride in 20th century cars on a 19th century system.

  13. The more rail the better! But, when he capital outlay is funded, the maintenance must be funded at the same time. No one likes to do/pay for maintenance.

  14. It is an interesting proposal, but it seems not to deal with the rider who is not going to go into Boston. It seems to me that having frequent reliable transit, light or heavy rail service along 128 with corresponding extension of the existing, Blue Red Green and Orange lines to the 128 ring will have the largest impact. The 128 ring is choking on traffic. The goal should be to create a transit system where the transit is the superior way to get around so it is favored by the public.

    Right now, the T is a necessary evil, It is not as good as a car in time, comfort, reliability or necessarily cost. People who’s companies do not provide easy or free parking use it because it is cost effective. But it is not reliable, comfortable or time efficient.

    Get decision makers and management to address the time efficiency, cost and reliability as they invest and it will be the method of choice to get around. Investments should occur where transit improvements impact the movement of people so people have alternatives that are reliable, time efficient and cost effective over what is happening now. This should be guiding principal of the discussion and decision making process. Or where there is significant road congestion, that is an opportunity for transit investment.

    1. Daniel, you make a very good point. We may be improving access from each of the towns into Boston, but trips between towns on different lines require going into Boston and then going out again — even if the towns are close to each other. A full plan would definitely include two or three ‘ring’ lines (the rail equivalents of 495 and 128) to connect differnet lines lines together.

  15. The regional rail proposal is sound, well-researched, forward-looking, and I agree is the direction we should be going. Which of course means it won’t be done. Having taken metro rail in the Twin Cities, Portland, and Seattle, I’ve seen what’s possible, and we might as well be in the 19th century. And I’m “just” a miserable red line rider, and not even someone who might presume to want to ride rail to or from the suburbs.

  16. The Transit Matters proposal is excellent. Key points are stopping South Station Expansion and building the North South Rail Link. This is the kind of long-term vision that has been sorely lacking.

  17. I would really like to see what someone else with experience makes of these figures; there are a lot of claims about costs that are based on other countries’ results rather than ours. E.g., they cite the cost of electrification in New Zealand; what was the cost (in current dollars) of electrifying Amtrak from New Haven to Boston? Similarly, why should the NSRL be so much cheaper than the Big Dig just because Munich, with its own geology, was cheaper? (I see they refer to a “Harvard study”, but the footnote doesn’t give a URL, only an admission that tunneling would be difficult here given what’s already in place.) I’m also very suspicious of claims that any experience of rider increases in other countries would be repeated here; aside from however much more independent-minded US residents may be, most of the countries cited tax gasoline so that it costs twice or more what it costs here (making mass transit more attractive and more fundable) — and US politicians have been unwilling to vote for even small increases in gas taxes. There’s also no acknowledgment of the effect of population density on the viability of mass transit; Paris, for instance, has over 4 times the density of Boston (just Boston; adding in suburbs tilts the ratio even more).

    I would love to see a much better system — but putting up unsupportable figures is an invitation to getting shot down now and ignored in the future, and getting started based on excessive promises could leave us in an even worse situation when the money runs out amid uncompleted projects.

    1. 2 notes:
      * above was all about the proposal link added on the 27th, not the original discussion.
      * Another thought for South Station: look at Central Station at The Hague, where (from what I could see in 1990) ingenious scheduling allows them to have 2 separate trains on each commuter track.

  18. A regional frequent service system could transform eastern Massachusetts, like the RER in the Paris region and S-Bahn’s for the major German cites. We have so much of a possible RER system in place, i.e. the existing rights of way and already running lines. As I see it, two elements would need to be put in place. Electrification of the MBTA Commuter Rail system and the North-South Rail Link to allow through service.

  19. I enjoyed reading the proposal and I think that it makes a lot of sense as a capital investment. Nonetheless, I’m not optimistic that it will be implemented in near future. My concern, of course, is in the willingness of the federal and state governments to pay for that investment. The newly ballooned federal deficit will result in calls for cut backs in federal spending and the Trump infrastructure plan is unrealistic to say the least. Meanwhile, on the state level, the Governor and House Speaker keep up their mantra of “no new taxes” to the detriment of investment.

  20. Why the continual delays, stop the talking and get it done. 2040 ?? Really?? Good luck to the next generation I’ll be dead by then!!

  21. Baker aka Mr. Vanilla, has not solved any of our transportation problems. Where do you park at the Seaport?? when will he bring the T up to 2018 needs??
    He gets a great rating because he dodges and does not confront or solve anything.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *