The MBTA’s well-documented slow zone expansion has frustrated many. I want to summarize my current perspective on the subway challenges.
I’m a current and life-long transit rider and I viscerally love the T. I always appreciate being able to leave the driving to others. As a legislator, I have followed the T’s challenges closely.
For many years, I have repeated the mantra that to improve reliability we need to “focus on state of good repair.” With switch components dated before World War I and subway vehicles dated before the end of the Vietnam war, it seemed obvious that renewing the infrastructure was the central challenge facing the T.
For me, that has meant that we should not distract management with expansion demands, but should allow them to focus on repairing tunnels and replacing track, signal, power, and vehicles.
Under Governor Patrick and Governor Baker, annual capital spending on modernization and repair increased radically. The T is now spending between $1.5 and $2 billion every year on capital projects, mostly for modernization and repair. The T’s latest capital plan is out for review.
With all the money that has been spent, and much of it spent well, why are we in such poor shape? First, of course, the maintenance deficit that we have to dig out of is deep.
But more, not all of the projects have gone well, notably the procurement of the new cars for the Red Line and the Orange Line. Perhaps, we added fatal complexity by insisting that the cars be assembled in western Massachusetts. At the time, it seemed like an acceptable accommodation to secure statewide support for a multi-billion dollar Boston project.
As the schedule has continued to slip, the decision to stage car assembly locally looks like a bad one. Getting that contract back on track is one of the thorniest challenges facing the Governor and her transportation team.
But the greater challenge is rebuilding the safety culture of the T. Dreary basics like checklists and inspections apparently haven’t gotten enough attention. The T is struggling to redevelop and enforce basic safety procedures.
At the same time, personnel turnover, combined with the nationwide shortage of transportation professionals, is making it harder for the T to strengthen safety oversight and even to assign personnel to meet previous service expectations.
Many observers, including me, thought that new equipment would solve the system’s problems. But it’s clear now that the human challenges are at least as great as the infrastructure challenges.
In any complex system, a lot of things have to be perfect for the system to function as intended. Right now a lot of things are not perfect in the MBTA. Until a lot more things are perfect, we are not going to get the service we want.
Meanwhile, commutes will be longer and less reliable. No promises should be made or believed.
But I do believe this: There are a lot of good people at all levels in the T and they care about the work they do. As a legislator, I will be doing everything I can to support them and the Governor as they struggle to rebuild public trust.