Raising our rate of transit investment

The MBTA’s Board heard a presentation this week from leaders of Toronto’s regional rail system.  What was really stunning was how rapidly Toronto has been investing in all forms of transit improvement and expansion. 

Since 2008, Toronto’s regional leadership has been engaged in a series of transit expansions which will add up to a total investment of approximately $60 billion by 2028.  Annual spending has reached a level over $4 billion in some years.  $4 billion in well-managed transit investments within one year represents staggering progress.  In Massachusetts, we have struggled to raise our annual investment to $1 billion per year on transit.  In private and public meetings officials ask constantly whether we can move more quickly, but again and again the answer has been that we don’t have the planning and management capacity to do so.

Toronto’s accomplishments should give us hope that we can build much greater planning and management capacity.  The key to Toronto’s rapid movement has been to recruit talent from around the world through public-private-partnerships.  

In Massachusetts, we use a traditional procurement approach: Public agencies, heavily aided by consulting resources, write detailed engineering specifications for projects.  Then they put the specifications out to bid.  Construction or manufacturing contractors place their bids.  The selected contractor is paid incrementally from public funds as they hit milestones in the contract work. Then the public agency runs the built road or transit facility.

In the Toronto public-private-partnership (“PPP”) model, the public agency works with stakeholders to define key service goals at a high level:  For example, provide 15 minute service in both directions on a certain route.  Then, it requests proposals from teams of companies.  Each team must demonstrate that it includes all the necessary capacities necessary to provide the service — design, engineering, construction, manufacturing, management and even construction financing.  The public agency chooses the team that offers the best overall package.

The PPP may include major financial entities that front the money for the project, but ultimately all the funding for the projects comes from the fare payers and the government.  The partnership contract may shift some of the project risk to the private partners, for example, the risks of cost overruns or the risks that demand for the new service does not materialize.  This improves accountability and reduces the probability of failure. 

Perhaps the most important feature of the Toronto PPP model is that it draws in the talent of multiple private companies from across the world to do design, engineering, and management.  In our traditional model, our ability to expand transit is limited by the available time and skills of a fairly small number of public employees.  I have written previously that we need to build more depth in our transportation leadership.  The PPP model still requires a lot of skilled oversight, but it engages a much larger talent pool. 

The Governor’s current transportation proposal does include language designed to facilitate public private partnerships along these lines.  I hope that we can develop consensus and pass language that moves in this direction.  

If we are able to build more project capacity through PPPs or otherwise, we will still be limited by available funds.   The gross product of Ontario, the province including Toronto, is not much greater than that of Massachusetts but the role of national support may or may not be comparable.

Commuter rail riders in both Boston and Toronto tend to be more affluent.  In Toronto, the discussion seems to be about raising fares to achieve self-sufficiency.  In Boston, our commuter rail runs through many lower-income communities.  There is increasing recognition that many lower-income people might use commuter rail if the fares were lower.  More on this possibility in a future post.

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Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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  1. Honestly, I think the key is to improve efficiency of all public projects and public departments. It took American workers six years to build the Long Fellow bridge in 1906. Yet 100 years later, it took whoever the construction company is six years to revamp the structure and resurface the bridge.

    To me, this is a very troubling indicator as to what extend our construction workers and engineering team is being incapable and corrupted.

    No wonder Boston could never see any major improvement in public transportation.

    1. The Longfellow Bridge can’t be used as an example; it was a restoration (not museum-quality but approaching it) of an existing structure that still had to provide at least some connection over the water during the entire project. Putting up a bridge from scratch, with no care about how some of its features will decay, is a lot easier, as is replacing modern construction (cf the replacement of several viaducts on I-93 in Somerville, each taking 60 hours after everything had been designed, measured, manufactured, and brought to where it would be used).

      1. I got your point. We are so proud to compare our productivity to works 100 years ago, without modern construction equipment.
        I drove through long fellow bridge regularly during the renovation period. It is true that some of work are restorative and time consuming. But most of the times when I pass by (either by car or T), I saw nobody doing any real work during a perfectly fine work day. Or it is one people work, five people stand by and chat situation.
        Accept it or not, that is the real reason why it took so long and cost so much. And the whole city suffered traffic jams for 6 years.

  2. Apologize for being too hasty to respond.

    On a second thought, public-private partnership seems to be a much better option than relying solely funded operations. For an example, private partners will make sure they don’t hire a big-dig style contractors, because they are footing part of the costs. So I want to thank you for sharing your point of view and I totally support it.

    Toronto seems to be quite comparable to Boston. I was so surprised to see their extensive networks for subway, light rail and commuter trains runs efficiently.

    Also, Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong’s public transportation system also introduced private partners. They are a huge success and provided reliable, efficient operations to a much larger city than Boston. The fares might be expensive. But I would rather pay it than sitting in the traffic and waste two hour each day.

    Please google search the subway map for the above mentioned cities and you will realize how much those cities have done.

    Boston is behind by a good 15 to 20 years. If we don’t act now, we might never catch up.

  3. I think part of the issue is having trust in the private parties. There is also a fear of being called out for making errors that I think leads small errors to cascade before they are discovered. There is, I think, in this country and particularly here, a belief that transportation should be free to the user, often coupled with a feeling that we are overtaxed (I realize that both really can’t be true). Finally, the T has historically been exceptionally change resistant, perhaps because of that fear of error. I think we need to overcome that kind of thinking before we can make the kind of progress that’s needed. I think the current MassDOT leadership is capable of doing that, but we are nowhere near there.

    1. I think the downside risk is much limited compared to the current MBTA. They just do nothing and could not function properly. It took them 36 people to traffic control the redline at 5 trains an hour service rate?

      The spokes person was trying to create an image that they are working hard to fix the redline. But in reality, they are telling us what is wrong with the system.

  4. I have always supported a PPP model but from what I have seen/heard from the progressive democrats it will never happen in Massachusetts. It would be like the progressives allowing prisons being built and run by a PPP, or infrastructure projects, or having a lot more Charters schools. Hopefully I am wrong on this so that we can see improvements on so many fronts.

  5. No one should doubt our ability to improve. It will take money and time. How efficiently we use those two resources will depend almost entirely on the caliber of talent we put to the task. Hire the best people and give them room to work. Hold them accountable.

  6. In Massachusetts, transit has been neglected by the Governor and legislative leadership for decades. It is great that it is a priority for you and Sen Spilka and others. Sharing the risk & reward with non-governmental entities may be part of the solution, sustained prioritization by the Governor, House Speaker, and Senate President is also essential.

  7. It’s interesting that you compliment Toronto because we were deeply impressed by the RTC transit system in Quebec City, another Canadian city. The app RTC’s real-time Nomade shows you nearby stops, full route maps for buses passing through, and next times of arrival. Real time tracking and bus passes for purchase at any local drug store were other conveniences. As visitors we could quickly figure out how to reach our destination. Busses were full of people and ran often. Such a pleasure. It was painful to think of Boston’s transit in comparison. I wish we had an app like theirs too.

  8. Public-private partnerships aimed at improving or better managing municipal infrastructure have often proved disastrous. The charter-school astroturf movement is one example that the voters of Massachusetts recently had the good sense to clamp down on. Others are not hard to find, see e.g.

    1. I really liked Charter schools in Boston as they provide a valid alternatives for the community.
      Why just we just let them compete? and see which one wins in the long run? Charter school vs public school, and MBTA vs PPP.
      let those who cannot survive perish and let those capable flourish.

  9. “Since 2008, Toronto’s regional leadership has been engaged in a series of transit expansions which will add up to a total investment of approximately $60 billion by 2028. Annual spending has reached a level over $4 billion in some years. $4 billion in well-managed transit investments within one year represents staggering progress. In Massachusetts, we have struggled to raise our annual investment to $1 billion per year on transit. In private and public meetings officials ask constantly whether we can move more quickly, but again and again the answer has been that we don’t have the planning and management capacity to do so.”
    Any specifics? What have they done in Toronto? And how does that compare to Massachusetts? I was underwhelmed by TO transit when I was there a few years ago. The airport (YYZ) to downtown link was a bus that made lots of stops and was not configured for tourists and their luggage. It connected to a limited subway system using old equipment. I felt at home, like I was in back in Boston. Except airport access here is way better.

  10. No more tax hikes! The elderly in Boston will be forced out their homes because of all the tax hikes, especially real estate taxes.

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