Earlier this week, the MBTA board unanimously embraced the general idea that we should radically improve rail service, both for “urban” communities inside 128 and for the wider region. Over the next few months, the board will need to make some more definitive decisions about where, when and how to roll out improvements. View the live stream of the discussion at this link starting at 1:23:00.
The members of the board all expressed a desire to provide much more service everywhere. However, they stopped short of formally embracing the maximal option before them which offered 15 minute service to most existing stations and included building the expensive North-South Rail Link.
Their first resolution recognized the need to vet service improvements on each line both economically and environmentally. In truth, not every service expansion makes sense. There is nothing desirable about running trains around empty –- one has to do a careful analysis of whether ridership is likely to materialize.
The resolution directed staff “[T]o develop a set of options that maximize the ridership returns on investment over the next ten years and support a pathway to more improvement over the long term, with particular emphasis on lines that are most likely to be well used.”
The board could have stopped there and waited for staff to develop the requested new set of options, but they chose to go further, provisionally embracing specific line improvements in a second resolution recommended by board chair Joe Aiello. That resolution directed the general manager to “implement EMU [electric multiple unit] powered service along the Providence/Stoughton line, the Fairmont line and the line from Boston to Everett to Chelsea to Revere to Lynn (the so-called Environmental Justice line).”
Over the past few months, advocates have repeatedly come before the board during its generous public comment period to urge better service on these lines which serve lower income areas. Chair Aiello argued that those lines merit early attention, noting that promises had been made 10 years ago about the Fairmount line and making an intuitive argument that ridership will be strong on the inner North Shore line.
In the discussion before the vote on the second resolution, Board Member Monica Tibbits-Nutt acknowledged and emphasized the equity arguments for improving service on those lines, but went on to express her concern that the choice of lines at this stage would be inconsistent with the direction to develop options based on expected ridership. She asked the chair to confirm that the line choice would be “consistent with what [staff] puts together for what the short, medium and long term elements need to be, [in other words, that] we are not going to supersede what [staff] come up with.” The chair confirmed that.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack similarly commented that she was concerned about the “specificity” of the resolution noting that the board had no information about the cost or feasibility of the new electrified service on these particular lines – how electrification would be implemented, whether the new service would require additional tracks, etc.
Chairman Aiello responded, “[S]taff is going to have to do their work, they are going to have to do their discovery, . . . I’d rather be a little bit on the blunt side and have the staff push back and the process push back.”
Board Member Brian Lang endorsed the sense of urgency but recognized, “We need to make some decisions with the information that we have now and if we have to alter them going forward . . . and there is a rational reason to do it, we will do it.”
The hard parts of the work to evaluate alternative options have already been done. The Rail Vision team has already assessed the physical feasibility of different service configurations on the available tracks and has already run ridership models. Hopefully, staff can be before the board again rather soon with that data. The board appears ready to then revisit their more specific resolution and perhaps make a new choice of lines to prioritize in the light of feasibility and/or return on investment considerations.
As they return to the question of which lines to prioritize, the board should also return to Chair Aiello’s prophetic comment at the start of this week’s discussion: “[L]and use is a very very underappreciated element of what’s going to happen here. . . . [W]hen we did the Orange Line and the Red Line extension projects, it was intended to serve what were then existing very very modest communities in terms of their wealth. Little did we know that the world would change and these communities would be really where people of wealth wanted to live and effectively displace those that we thought we were serving in that generation of investment. It could happen here if we are not careful. So therefore there does need to be a collaborative effort with the communities we serve to maintain affordability. ”
Maintaining affordability of housing is one of our central challenges as a state and we have not done well at it so far. Unquestionably, equity considerations should weigh heavily in locating new service, but the top consideration should be where the service is likely to attract the most riders, because neighborhood demographic profiles do change. In assessing potential ridership, the board should have data before it as to the possible the impact of introducing discount fares for low-income riders — we do not want the current fare structure to deflate projections of possible ridership in low-income areas.
For further background, please see this prior post.