At a recent MBTA board meeting, it became alarmingly clear that the MBTA is behind in its planning for climate resiliency.  Add that challenge to the challenges of catching up on maintenance, assuring safety, and expanding service.

Andrew Brennan, Senior Director for Energy and Environment, explained to the board that the MBTA completed a “high-level” vulnerability assessment of the system in 2017.  His presentation materials are here and his talk begins at 2:55 in this livestream of the June 10 board meeting.

The 2017 high level assessment revealed the obvious: Namely, that the most exposed asset is the Blue Line and that the greatest risk to the Blue line comes from flooding due to sea level rise. Only months after the assessment, the winter high tide of 2018 flooded Aquarium station.

As to the lowest lying assets on the Blue line (Aquarium station and the Orient Heights Maintenance Facility), more detailed engineering studies have been completed to identify just how they would be flooded and what can be done to protect them: for example, raising openings like vent shafts and raising the most water sensitive components like transformers.

Yet, the full costs of even those targeted improvements are still not fully known. Brennan further stated, “Most stations on the Blue Line could be exposed to flooding by 2070.” He acknowledged that there is no assessment of the total cost of protecting the Blue Line.

As to the Green Line, one vulnerability is already known. The MBTA incurred tens of millions of dollars of loss due to subway flooding at Kenmore station in the heavy rain of 1996. More than 20 years later a project is finally underway to build a door to close the tunnel opening next to the Muddy River.

All of the subway lines run through areas that will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding. The major transit nodes at North and South Stations sit next to the harbor. Careful projections by the City of Cambridge put the Alewife area at high risk of Mystic River flooding by 2070.

Vulnerability assessments of the Red Line and the Green Line are to be completed in calendar 2020. Unfortunately, all it takes is one vent grate at a low spot to channel a heavy flow of corrosive saltwater onto the tracks, signals, and power systems that taxpayers are working so hard to upgrade. The presentation was ambiguous, but it appears that a rigorous analysis of specific exposures for the lower lying Red and Green line locations is years away.

The board members were politely exasperated by the presentation. Their reaction was to seek to engage more closely with other regional authorities in planning for more comprehensive solutions. Board Chair Aiello said, “I don’t think the authority should be spending money caulking things up . . . when it’s part of a broader thing.” Board Member Lang said, “I’m sitting here feeling like we are putting a finger in a dike. . . . It’s a losing game unless there is a much more coordinated approach that looks at all of this stuff and it’s just not happening. . . . I was ready to shoot myself listening to your presentation.”

Reviewing the meeting, I welcomed the Board’s intention to help push for regional solutions. Yet, my own considered view is that there is no long-term regional solution to the sea-level rise problem for Boston. Until we achieve global control of carbon emissions, the risk of flooding of our most vulnerable assets will continue to rise. The floods will eventually happen. If we have not made the vent-shaft-by-vent-shaft fixes to contain the damage, the region will be crippled. Our adaptation goal for the MBTA should be to assure that our current surge of investment will have a hundred year life even in a worst case, “business as usual” global carbon scenario.

For me, the meeting moved MBTA climate resiliency from my watch-the-agency-and-worry list to my legislature-needs-to-act list. I favor an approach to investment in climate adaptation that is informed by clear thinking about which assets are both vulnerable and critical. The MBTA is certainly one of those assets.

Photo credit to the MBTA — photo included in Brennan presentation.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

37 replies on “MBTA Behind on Climate Adaptation”

  1. “Careful projections by the City of Cambridge put the Alewife area at high risk of Mystic River flooding by 2070.” Actually, Alewife is already at risk. The Red Line station there was closed due to flooding just last year.

  2. Sadly , Mass Transit in Massachusetts is a disaster – it has almost every type of transportation and very few share common parts (subways especially). A comprehensive evaluation of the entire subway system needs to be made and full replacements (yes everything) should be replaced so that there is a uniform system. The subway system is over 100 years old and like NYC and London the Subway needs to be expanded – but mind you we need one technology not 3 as we currently have

  3. I was glad to see that you wrote ” Yet, my own considered view is that there is no long-term regional solution to the sea-level rise problem for Boston.” Band-Aids and sea walls won’t fix this. Nature always wins.

      1. I wouldn’t say nature always wins in the sense that flooding can never be controlled. It depends on the particular topography. But in the case of Boston along the harbor, I believe we run out options 100 to 200 years from now.

  4. Thank you for raising awareness about the risks and your years of leadership to bring about action. Keep pushing!

  5. The subject line of your email about this article was “MBTA unprepared for flood risks increased by sea level rise”.

    Everything after the words “MBTA unprepared” is redundant.

    It is no longer a question of IF there will be a catastrophic failure of Boston’s public transportation, but WHEN, and then isn’t even a question either, because the when is NOW. Right now, as I type this, the MBTA is suffering from catastrophic failure.

    It’s too late. The horse has left the barn. The train has left the station. The ship has sailed.

    1. Came here for this comment. The MBTA is unprepared for a Tuesday morning.

      All of those assurances that the fare hike is just a fair way to have riders pay their share are frankly sounding more naive by the day.

  6. I was just thinking about this because of flooding at DC Metro stations earlier this week. It is an urgent matter of safety and prudent investment in our infrastructure. We cannot spend money to upgrade the system if we are not also taking steps to protect against flooding events.

  7. We need to be moving development to higher ground away from the coast, such as Woburn and Waltham, and connect them to the urban core with express transit using the commuter rail right-of-ways that get minutes of use per hour. Create planned, sustainable (walkable, bikable) mid-density cities with jobs, housing, retail and entertainment interspersed with trees and open space, built near the rail lines, that could be paved over and turned into bus rapid transit that could travel around the suburbs before getting on the limited-access paths at the dangerous at-grade crossings, then drop-off/pick-up people around town, instead of forcing them to transfer at North Station.

    People could live and work in these areas and still get in to Boston/Cambridge quickly at nights and weekends, or live there more cheaply and work in the urban core without adding to traffic congestion, or live in-town and get to those suburban jobs. The dense areas could be contained to being in the current commercial areas near the rail lines that are also near highways, and the new commercial revenue could pay for city services and schools.

    Then businesses and our economy in general wouldn’t be as vulnerable to climate impacts, both from sea level rise, and extreme heat in town from the urban heat deserts that we’re creating with large buildings and reduced tree canopy and green space.

  8. The decades old mismanagement of the MBTA is becoming more and more obvious and my question is why should the users have to pay high fares and the citizens of Massachusetts have to pay buckets of tax monies to upgrade the system when it is doubtful that the current from of government sponsored ownership / management will NEVER get the problems fixed, never mind the needed expansion of the system. I only hope that someone can think outside of the box to find an alternative solution?????

    1. MBTA is mismanaged drastically and there are no solution in sight. Look at MBTA general manager BS on TV on how they can ensure rider safety and normal operation. At the end of day, all that he said is there will be endless delays on everything.
      Delays on failure recovery, delays in service upgrade, and delays in new car delivery and delays on long term planning.
      But there will be no delays on fair hikes and MBTA union’s salary hikes, never ever

  9. Maybe the answer is elevated monorail systems using the center of the highways and major thoroughfares. The subway method of moving people is obsolete. Water seeks its own level, you can not stop what is inevitable. The city of Boston should be studying the cost-benefit of a monorail system.

    1. Interesting idea sadly Boston has failed to secure right of ways but a long term plan this might make more sense. The problem is getting visionary’s to put a concept in place. Having strategic vision of transportation needs 50-100 years from now is key or will most of us telecommute to work?

  10. First, I’d love someone to pass a ballot initiative banning any use of state dollars for any climate change remediation for the waterfront area. Zero. Zip. Nada. This doomed, drowning land was built on only for the sake of short-term profits. Let those who profited eat their watery losses.

    Second, it’s time to seriously start developing the interior of the state away from Boston. Worcester, Springfield, these are cities far enough away from the ocean to survive. Boston isn’t. Enjoy your time now, do the easy fixes. In 100 years the T will be the least of people’s worries.

  11. If the basic strategy toward the MBTA, and many more of our public services, is to “starve the beast” until it gets better, then things will get worse. I don’t doubt the importance of effective management, but my impression is that for decades we have refused to fund the basic requirements of an effective transportation network. Our “transportation strategy” as been to rely far too heavily upon private cars that increasingly clog our streets, cause inhumane delays and push more carbon into our atmosphere. That has been our decision. I find it embarrassing, as well as frustrating.

    The problems facing the MBTA are symptomatic of a much deeper problem: We, as taxpaying voters, have been unwilling to provide the funding required for our public services to serve us well. This is not primarily a question of poor management. We are getting exactly what we are paying for. This includes our schools, our health care, our streets, our public transportation, our energy systems. Until we change our attitudes about those services we all rely upon and then step up and pay the cost, we should expect all of these things to get worse. It’s up to us.

    1. This is exactly how tax payers and everyday riders being hijacked by MBTA managements and union works. If you don’t provide money as I demand, we will deliver disrupted transportation services. But the service is still terrible and there are no fundamental improvements after all these years.

  12. I agree, action is needed by the legislature both to make the transportation system more resilient and to provide some forward thinking about transportation and related zoning/land use issues. Currently the MBTA is mostly overwhelmed by short-term issues and corrections to past mistakes, and is clearly not thinking long term. As a simple example, when they recently renovated Government Center they did not straighten the tracks to allow longer trains to use the station, though obviously this eventually this needs to be done at Government Center and several other stations to make the Green Line run as a serious subway, not a buried streetcar line. Most of the commuter rail system is run by a vendor whose time horizon is the end of the current contract, not even 2030 much less 2070. The vendor doesn’t have much incentive to make even simple inexpensive improvements to the system to increase ridership, and neither the incentive nor the budget to even think about improving improve resiliency. The legislature is the right body to decide how to pay for all the improvements to resiliency and transportation that are needed, perhaps by some sort of tax surcharge (e.g. the real-estate transfer tax) on properties in the areas that will benefit? Or some scheme to change the zoning near the transit stations and capture some of the increased property value to pay for transit improvements? The legislature has to make the key decisions, since it is highly unlikely that each town and city, or agencies like MBTA and MDC and MassDOT, will make serious moves to improve resiliency or significantly improve the transportation system without clear direction from the state (and probably also some funding from the state).

    1. The legislature has been a major part of the problem for many decades, are you really thinking that they can or will correct their ways of doing business now? This is a system that will drain your bank account and not make improvements with that money. I just cannot trust them anymore!

      1. John, Your opinion about the legislature is widespread, (though I presume it does not totally apply to Will. The perception tends to be that the problem is because of “everyone else” and not the ones we elect.)
        Trust is the key challenge we are facing, in our towns and cities, our commonwealth, nation and world. This is a big problem since trust is the largely unconscious foundation of human society. I trust that the food I purchase at Trader Joe’s will not kill me and that the medications I get from CVS are what the doctor ordered. I trust my doctor actually did graduate from Medical School, though I haven’t checked on that. I trust that I can drive through a green light with very little risk of being hit by another car though I don’t stop to verify that assumption. Our entire social system is based on trust. When it declines, we all go down with it.
        How do we turn this around? How do we build more trustworthy and trusted politicians and public services? No easy answers. We need to use the tools we have in our democracy: getting money out of politics, carefully vetting our political candidates, voting every time and encouraging lots of others to vote. We need to hold public leaders at all levels of our democracy accountable for their decisions, and their failure to make decisions that are needed. And we need to be willing to pay the cost of quality public services so we all can be fairly well-served. I know of no any other way to grow out of this malaise about what we do together. It’s up to us.

        1. Trust is something that only successful change can restore. The MBTA is on a course to successful change, I believe, but I don’t expect people to trust that until it’s really happened.

        2. I do have trust in Will, I do not always agree with his policies but I have found him to be sincere and states what he will attempt to do and then does so. My problem is with most things that our government controls which tend to be very expensive and do not obtain the results they are supposed to.
          I also agree that we need to get money out of politics but we also must get the unions out of politics as they are as self serving as the people and corporations providing money.

          1. I agree with all your thoughts.
            Unions shall not exist in Public transportation.

            A most recent example of MBTA’s failure is that they used 48 people to control the traffic of red line at 10 trains an hour when there was a derail at Quincy. What a big waste of human resource and out tax money.

            Also, why would take 10 years to put in new trains into redline and orange line? The current trains has all kind of problems. Door cannot open, doors cannot close, No AC, leaking problems. Why can’t they finish the test and put the trains in next year?

  13. What would the first legislative action here be, to get a more robust study done, so that the T can start lining up the specific jobs to work on and by priority?

    On the funding angle, we’re now in a regional cap and invest agreement, The Transportation and Climate Initiative of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. When do the caps for that start bringing in money? Can they be used for resiliency or only for mitigation?

  14. Senator Brownsberger, I appreciate your concern about climate change, public transit and the MBTA ‘s unpreparedness. I spent Wednesday night and again Thursday night waiting for a train at the Charles/MGH station to ride two stops to Central Sq., Cambridge and home. Wednesday night I waiting about 40 minutes, and Thursday night about 45 minutes. I figure that if this system cannot even serve its riders on a sunny summer afternoon with even remotely timely service, forget the future planning. The mechanical failures, police action, and vandalized trains are now on an hourly basis. The entire system is a disgrace. As a long-time supporter of the T (I am 77 years old) I have given up hoping.

    1. I stopped riding the red line due to all kinds of failures. MBTA is one perfect example of how public system can fail. I have been stuck underground multiple times in perfect sunny days, rainy days and snow storm days.

      With the current rate of equipment deterioration, it might soon fail almost everyday.

  15. Thank you Will, for information and interest in a long-overdue concern. Local flooding is already a serious concern and we should keep in mind that sea level will be rising at an accelerating rate for a long time. If we do everything possible to stop it in it’s tracks we are already committed to at least 30 feet of sea level rise. Besides plugging the holes as a stopgap, the Commonwealth will need to think really long term about what we want to save and how much we are willing to pay for it.

    1. What is your basis for 30 feet? The 2012 NOAA forecast is a max of 2 meters by 2100. That may be too optimistic, but 30 feet would be bad.

      The 2018 International Panel of Climate Change Report puts global sea level rise at a up to a meter in the worst carbon scenario — see page 1140.

      Al Jazeera reported on a two meter rise as a high (95th percentile estimate) in May 2019. They cited this report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

      Bottom line: 2 meters still looks like the high side for 2100. After that, if warming continues, we could easily see the 30 feet level, but that is in a time frame too far to project with any confidence.

      1. I am talking really long term–much more than 100 years. The greenhouse gases we have already emitted will have a delayed, long term effect of accelerating rates of temperature and sea level rise. Yes, the figures you mention are in line with best estimates for the next 80 years, but it is likely that the Greenland ice cap is already doomed — unless the world can engineer some sort of mitigation. I hear this from scientists who are crunching the numbers.

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