Setting Priorities for Rail

Massachusetts is currently contemplating a program of investments in regional rail expansion that may cost tens of billions of dollars over several decades.  Within that program we need to prioritize the highest value investments.

All agree that the top priority is to make the existing system reliable.  We have a moral obligation to those who already use rail to provide reliable service and service expansions can only be built on a foundation of reliable operations.

But after reliability, the next priority has to be supporting mode-shift.  By mode-shift, I mean getting people out of cars into commuter trains, capturing trips that people are already making.  We already have commuter rail routes that run parallel to huge flows of traffic, we need to be focused on how to shift that traffic off the roads onto rail.

Supporting transit-oriented development (TOD) has to be a secondary priority.   By building new routes or increasing frequency, we may encourage job and/or housing growth in new areas.  It is valid and urgent to focus on TOD from an urban planning standpoint and sometimes appropriate to support TOD with additional transit investments.  But transit investments should target mode-shift first because development patterns change slowly and are hard to predict, while mode-shift opportunities are somewhat more immediate and certain.

While I start from the view point that building a regional rail system is the right goal for our investment program, over a series of steps, summarized in a recent piece, I have come to the conclusion that in planning investments towards that goal, we should start by focusing on investments that will reduce congestion at rush hour (which now spans several hours in the morning and afternoon):

The MBTA should be asking broadly how to increase rush hour ridership with recognition that the solution may not require transit investment per se, but may involve more parking at commuter rail stops or other last mile solutions.  The MBTA should be looking at each of its commuter rail lines and determining the ridership constraints at rush hour.

Congestion at Rush Hour

I believe that this is the right focus for three reasons.  First, it is the low hanging fruit for mode shift.  Although communications technology is allowing more stay at home and off-hours work arrangements, most commuters still get up in the morning and go to work more or less at rush hour.  Fifty five percent of the roads in greater Boston are congested at 8AM, but only 18% are congested at 11AM. Commuter rail could serve many of the drivers who are on the road at the most congested hours.

Second, if we are able to achieve substantial mode-shift along one or two major commuting corridors, by reducing congestion on those corridors we will benefit all commuters, including those whose needs force them to drive.  That will build broader support for continued expansion of rail. 

Third, from a climate change perspective, we want to move as many people out of cars as possible as quickly as possible.  A focus on converting existing rush hour trips offers the most rapid public transit approach to that goal (although we also have to focus separately on electrifying the private vehicle fleet).

Targeting congestion at rush hour does not mean only adding service at rush hour.  (A recent comment seemed to misconstrue my argument on this point.) On the contrary, for many drivers, the absence of more frequent rail service at off peak hours is one of the reasons that they choose to drive. 

The argument is that we should be looking at each line and asking what it would take to increase ridership and reduce road congestion.  The answers are likely to be different on different lines.  The conversation about the rail investment program has so far occurred at a visionary level without asking or answering the specific questions that would lead to prioritization of the highest value investment opportunities within the larger vision.

The maximal regional rail vision modeled by MassDOT would require the doubling of MBTA parking.  I’m all for reducing cars in the urban core areas that I represent, but that means giving the further-flung suburban commuters places to leave their cars when they get on the train.  A close look at the performance of some commuter lines may reveal that more parking is actually the most cost-effective way to improve ridership.

The public is asking us to reduce congestion.  Commuter rail can be part of the solution.  In the context of a larger long-term regional rail investment program, let’s declare regional congestion reduction the early priority and ask concretely how to achieve it.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

54 replies on “Setting Priorities for Rail”

  1. Senator Brownsburger,

    I hope your Christmas was great, and your new year is off to a positive start!?
    I, of course agree with your ideas and what you are saying. I believe the T needs to focus on improving services that they already have, and next finish what they have started. Thinking ahead is always the long term goal, but if they are having issues with delivering on the services we have now, I think we should remedy those issues first.

  2. Agreed. If decided that parking is a core issue, be sure also to investigate what is acceptable location. There may be distinct cost/benefit to what commuters might tolerate as “remote” site to a major station or stop such that far less resources are invested in very expensive on-site parking location. Buses can bring commuters from “remote” parking location into that station, instead.

    Also, am not aware of and may already exist, but does the MBTA or certain towns subsidize an “express” bus, from key locations/along populated corridors, where a critical mass of riders would justify? These could make very limited stops and run only during high volume commuting periods, such that single occupancy vehicle transit would be far less efficient time-wise. Obviously, there are costs to express buses, but if they funnel a significant amount of SOV drivers to public transportation, that has a huge benefit. Example might be runs, say, from Lexington Center to Arlington Center to Alewife for the Red Line, or Lincoln Center to Belmont Center to Alewife. While there are many existing MBTA bus lines, those routes stop every 2-3 blocks; an express bus to Alewife (or elsewhere) would provide a huge incentive to SOV drivers, because it shortens the ultimate elapsed commute, door-to-door.

    1. Maybe RTAs shouldn’t have been level funded.

      Was looking at PVTA’s budget the other day and saw that it’s in the 10s of milllions total, getting only around $29 million from the state IIRC. The Governor couldn’t spare a couple million more each year? This in a bus system that apparently doesn’t have the money to keep the seats clean or run buses longer than the early evening on weekends on most routes. Never mind all the wide swaths of Springfield suburb not served at all. Also note that Springfield’s bus users are predominantly minorities and not very well off financially on average.

      I expect similar observations would hold for the RTAs that connect to the commuter rail. It looked that way to me the times I went to Fitchburg. Worcester’s RTA isn’t rolling in dough either, though I hear some there are advocating for free bus fare now, thinking of Kansas City.

  3. Will,
    Good point on increasing parking as a way to increase rail ridership. But also keep in mind that traffic congestion getting to/from that parking is a deterrent now. Alewife, I’m looking at you. Even now, before thinking about expanding parking, there is a huge traffic mess to get in or out of Alewife at rush hour, adding 30-40min/day to commutes (both for those going to Alewife, and those trying to get past it). Frustratingly, it doesn’t seem it should have to be that way. It appears to result from pedestrian paths crossing (and slowing) traffic several times right at the garage, plus also a good amount of traffic that uses the entrance/exit ramps that isn’t even going to/from Alewife station. I would imagine that a good traffic planner could at least improve it with minimal infrastructure changes just by addressing these issues; bigger changes would be necessary if parking is expanded.

  4. Think future and think big. Providing a massive fleet of electric vehicles (hopefully autonomous sooner rather than later) run as mass transit by inter-county or state authority computer to take smart-phone riders to and from bus, T and commuter rail stops with “transfer rights” will supplant much of the use of Uber and Lyft. It could also replace late night low-volume bus, T and commuter rail scheduling to get patrons safely home and prevent drunk driving. We would then only need more frequent mass transit schedules to handle the extra ridership to and from downtown neighborhoods.

  5. I think John Bookston is on the right track with his comments. Tech communication changes have disrupted everything, and will continue to do so. We need to really look into the future to make a plan. The self driving feature will be here very soon. We need to capture that, and look beyond more parking space at rail stations. More parking at rail stations is good for today’s problems, but by the time more station parking is built we will have new mobility options.

  6. This seems like a math problem. It’s an ROI calculation, to be specific. You just have to apply it to all the available options, from five extra parking spaces at Waverly to an additional car on the Newburyport line to, I don’t know, free Friday Mai Tais on the ferry to see where the next dollar produced the greatest decrease in rush our traffic. It’s a decision made more or less cell by cell from the bottom up, not top down. I haven’t sat in a math class this century but in the private sector plenty of people do this professionally. Who does this for the state? Can’t the DOT calculate the impacts?

  7. What comes to my mind is: 1. adequate parking at T/train stations 2: higher gas prices 3: lower public transportation prices. Never free Mai Tais. Perhaps free carrot juice or Perriers or exercise classes. Praying for some brilliant traffic expert to hit on the best solution. Meanwhile very happy to see that you (and Marty Walsh) are working so hard on this problem.

  8. More parking around commuter rail stations excludes people who don’t have cars or can’t use the car that day for whatever reason. It does this by creating vast deadzones around stations that are covered with asphalt and nothing else. It also causes more congestion and safety problems around stations by bringing in too many cars to one place, which is a particular problem for town center stations. It also damages the viability of the railway by eliminating any possibility that people might make the reverse-peak trip to businesses in the suburb. Not to mention the capital and operating cost of so much parking! When commuter rail is focused only on moving people from suburbs to downtown, then those trains have to return empty, which means half the revenue potential is wasted.

    Much better to serve most town stations with local bus routes that anyone can use, and make it easier to walk or cycle to the station for people who are within range (for cycling, 3-4 miles of catchment radius is easy to support). The area around most stations should be an inviting environment that supports local business and attracts ridership itself. Then the car parking needs are much lower, and can be focused on providing car parking at stations that happen to be located next to major highways that can actually handle the intense flows.

    1. What we need is last mile solutions that work. Further out, it’s hard to get people even to the bus stop. Agree that huge flat parking lots are bad urban planning. Structured parking is actually not expensive though compared to the per rider investments being proposed.

      1. I work & live in the suburbs and take the bus daily to work, use a folding bike for the last mile. Trouble is employers don’t want you to leave on a strict time table. claims of inflexibility and want the anytime, anywhere schedule. How about worker protections for non-car commuters?

      2. Will,
        I don’t completely agree with you on this one. Your point is valid for the further out train stations, but for the I95 inner core smaller, nimbler bus service will be a better option. I am advocating for a public-private partnerships for smaller buses because everything MBTA-relates is slow and expensive. Building new parking garages within the I95 circle will take many, many years and even more money to accomplish. Besides, they look ugly. Even more: when a person pays for parking + train, the economics start to work in favor of using a car all the way (unless the target destination is expensive parking in Boston). Adding privately operated lines of small electric buses can be done within a year or so and cost nothing in terms of capital expenses as the investment cost will be carried by the private operators (obviously, they need to be added to the subsidy list if Charlie Card can be used).

        1. Yes, and if the home community is not enabling mass transit users by developing in unsupportive ways or by not increasing and improving local, municipal bus service, we are simply subsidizing more car culture which will inevitably lead to an increase in individual vehicles.

        2. It’s a common idea to run “smaller, nimbler” buses but the main cost of bus service is not the bus, it is the driver. And the smaller the bus, the fewer potential riders there are to pay for the driver’s salary. Yes, you can try to use a private contractor and pay drivers less outside the union structure, but ultimately there is a nationwide driver shortage to the point where cities like Denver and San Francisco have had to cut back bus service for lack of drivers.

  9. We live in Boston area now but have bought a house in Southern NH. Plan to take the commuter train from Lowell but am retired so not every day. I cannot ride a bike anymore. What I would like is a guarantee that I can get a Lyft from Pelham to the train station at Lowell.

  10. As you mention we need several last / first mile solutions and not just parking expansion (that may make sense in some suburbs but not in town centers as per the former comment). My last mile is sometimes a foldable electric scooter which I use to get to North Station and reverse commute on the Fitchburg line (I have a 1.5 mile commute thereafter). A more realistic option for most could be Uber/Lyft (while we wait for autonomous electric buses) – we need more of them out in the burbs and less of them in downtown Boston. While they are still cars on the road they don’t need parking and they could pick up multiple people through their carpool service. Maybe encouraging commuter rail ridership with free Uber/Lyft (if they use pool?) to the commuter rail station for a short period of time could convince some to leave their cars behind and change behavior. That and some free coffee and breakfast on the train could be a nice lure.

  11. I like a lot of these ideas. I just want to ad that while this might sound crazy the first thing I think of that would make me more likely to take public transit given some of these other problems are solved is–on longer trips–tiny bathrooms of the kind long-distance buses have. (And maybe some coffee.) Is that even possible? (I love carrot juice too–make it organic please–we’re all consuming way too many pesticides!) I’m afraid this isn’t very sophisticated but it’s honestly how I feel.

  12. Which are the areas where parking expansion could result in greater rail ridership? What dialogues are going on in these communities? What is the present density of ridership on these routes and what is the minimum ridership on increased scheduling that would be financially viable.? People like flexibility if they give up their cars but the concern is how to do this without running nearly empty buses and trains.
    Also, has there been consideration of looping lines that connect the outgoing
    MTA lines (red/green) between Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Watertown?
    It’s so inefficient to have to ride the red line in and out of town to move East-West in the burbs. Dc has put in the purple line (above ground) to address this need.

    1. What dialogues are going on in these communities?

      You raise and important issue. Even in communities where more parking would get cars off the road, there is often no willingness to devote space to parking — especially when many of the people parking come from other communities.

  13. Regarding electrifying the private vehicle fleet, I’m committed to making my next car be an electric, but there are charging station issues in many neighborhoods. In towns where much of the housing doesn’t even have off street parking, let alone garages, what might be the solutions? Have the state or towns install a few chargers on every block and have people fight it out? Not every workplace has convenient charging either. What ideas are floating around for this situation?

    1. It will solve the tail pipe problem emissions and CO2 but does not address the congestion problem.

  14. One thing that seems to be missing in your posts is platforms. I didn’t see on the other post as well:

    Aside from ADA responsibilities raising platforms at all stations where possible should be a top priority. It will decrease boarding time and make the schedules more reliable/efficient. It might be pricey on some spots but is definitely worth the investment in the amount of time it will save up at each stop it is implemented at.

  15. The current priority transit planning is for getting in and out of the urban core which was valid for the last century. This is the problem. It may not be dominant today. What needs to be done is fact based transportation planning. Why not use the tax filing system (DOR) for information. The zip code where a filer lives and the zip code of work location for the W2. Make it simple, require the employer to state the zip code location where the tax payer customarily works and the zip code where the filer lives. Aggregate this through the entire database to sift out the dominant sum of routes.

  16. How about HOV lanes on Route 2, Storrow Drive and some sections of the Mass Turnpike? That seems to have worked well on the Southeast expressway and 93 from the north.

    That could be done almost quickly at relatively close
    little cost.

  17. I completely support your thoughts and concepts on this topic meaning focus on the low hanging fruit to provide us more MBTA ridership during rush hour and more parking is key to that idea!

  18. I’m behind on my reading, but will comment now based on this article and my recollection of your recent Commonwealth piece, since I won’t be caught up soon.

    I’m much happier with this expression of your views than I was with the Commonwealth piece. In the latter I (mis?)- interpreted you as saying 1. congestion is first priority, reduced emissions 2nd priority, and 2. we should focus on rush hour mass transit capacity to address congestion, but, since most people drive, when it comes to emissions we should use electric cars as our main solution.

    My view on 1. is that reducing emissions should be top priority with reducing congestion 2nd priority. In some cases congestion may even help drive mode shift, so reducing it is not a big priority to me. (Mind you, that’s easy for me to say since I don’t have a car, congestion only affects my bus trips, and I’ve learned to bypass the worst time periods or have the luxury to take multi-mile walks to avoid it).

    My view on 2. is that we need a two pronged approach, the mode shift you now refer to (thank god) and electric vehicles. I worry that some are assuming a remarkably quick personal auto fleet conversion to electric combined with an amazingly fast switch to a renewable energy sources both here and where the cars are manufactured. There’s also the uncomfortable issue of where and how the cobalt used in the batteries is mined. But as you well know mode shift is really hard as well. So we need to climb both branches taking the lowest hanging fruit on either side as we detect it.

    I agree with your basic thinking that money needs to be well spent and projects need to relate to current realities. With public transit that’s maybe tricky. After all, how do you find evidence for what ridership would be on transit lines that don’t yet exist. But still, we need to be fast and efficient to be successful and the time we should have started major action keeps receding into the past. I recall Secretary of Transportation Pollock noting that commuter rail ridership is currently relatively small compared to bus ridership. Does that change the equation when thinking about overall mode shift when we adjust our top goal from being reduced congestion to being reduced emissions?

  19. It’s all about reliability and dependability to get passengers to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time. We have jobs, classes, appointments to make and when the MBTA(buses, subway lines and commuter rails) can’t be counted on then will take other measures including taking a car. Why wait outside for who knows how long for an MBTA train or bus when can get to your destination in a faster amount of time in a car if have the means to do so? Make them more reliable and maybe will consider using their services again. Sometimes have no choice but to use them and I know there’s a good chance the MBTA will screw me over with terrible and unreliable service. So whether more garages are built by busy MBTA stations to me is irrelevant if the service will still be terrible.

  20. Speaking strictly for the Fitchburg line there is definitely a need for more frequent service, at least hourly off-peak at a bare minimum. Since that line mostly aligns with the Rt.2 corridor more frequent rail trips could take traffic off that congested road.

  21. I read your Commonwealth Magazine article, and the response from TransitMatters, a second time. More parking might be easier to accomplish than electrification, and cheaper, but I would not characterize any of the proposals as “low hanging fruit,” except lowering fares and parking costs. Make the existing lots that are below capacity free and see if ridership goes up, or if commuters just shift from one lot to another. The TransitMatters folks do gloss over the last-miles connection, between home and station. Most people just do not want to walk any significant distance, and in the more distant towns are there even sidewalks once you get away from the station? Not to mention trying to traverse uncleared walks when it snows. I still think that the quickest, simplest way to reduce congestion and benefit lower income riders would be to make all bus service free.

  22. Agree completely. Sadly, at least one town in your constituency (Belmont) has being doing its best for the past 10 or more years to do just the opposite–ie to prevent people from parking near the two train stations in town and taking the commuter rail to work. Streets near Belmont and Waverley stations that used to have unrestricted parking now have No Parking 7 am to 10 am just for the purpose of preventing rail commuters from using them. I am a resident of Waverley Square, and I suppose my neighbors must have lobbied for and/or supported these parking restrictions because of not wanting out of towners to park on “our” streets. But actually, I think it’s great to have cars parked on our residential streets all day. It has a great traffic calming effect. I wish the town would re-stripe Lexington Street (where I live) and clearly mark parking spots–with no restrictions– one side of the street (it’s not wide enough for spots on both sides), which hopefully would fill up early with commuters going to the Waverley station, and calm traffic using the re-striped traffic lanes. And of course get some cars off the road.

  23. Yes, and if the home community is not enabling mass transit users by developing in unsupportive ways or by not increasing and improving local, municipal bus service, we are simply subsidizing more car culture which will inevitably lead to an increase in individual vehicles.

  24. Will, A few thoughts.
    1. Presumably you’ll want this rail expansion to rely on electric power, not diesel. You’ll need to keep this in mind when energy bills come up. I’m sure you’d like renewables to provide the power, but that isn’t realistic at this point. You’ll need to be realistic about that in the future too and it may lead to difficult decisions.
    2. As I mentioned in another thread on this, over the last year or so I’ve interviewed for two jobs in Boston. I ended up passing on them because the commute wasn’t tenable. In both cases, the problem was getting from North Station to elsewhere in the city (Copley and South Station).
    3. It really seems impractical, and unfair, to concentrate on rail into a Boston hub and not improving the job availability in other areas (like Lowell, Worcester, though suburban areas as well).

  25. Hi Will, thanks for sharing your thoughts in both this post and the prior one.

    Quick question – aren’t the trains also pretty much full at rush hour? My mental model of the current commuter rail situation has been that the trains usually fill up and that North and South Stations have little or no surplus capacity for additional rush hour trips. I also thought electrification would allow faster train turnaround times, freeing up room at the terminal stations and allowing more trips to be run with the same number of trains. If you have different information I’d love to hear what you’ve been hearing.

    Within route 128 specifically, I have trouble imagining that trains will be sufficient to shift mode share, since there are significant gaps between rail lines. I therefore think that most places would benefit more from a broader and faster bus network. Adding new routes to underserved places and bus lanes so that existing and new routes travel faster has to be part of the solution to reach those who do not live near or cannot drive to a rail line. Arlington, I believe, has a bus lane program that could be a model for a region: they designate peak-direction parking spots as bus lanes at rush hour only. We also have to make sure that we add service to bus routes where vehicles get full – the T doesn’t always do this, so it ends up leaving existing ridership demand on the table.

  26. I own a folding bike, but I have not used it to get to the Waverley train station. Even on AM outbound Waverley trains, I have seen other folding bike owners refused entry. My guess is that on the Fitchburg line, the last opportunity to load one’s bike inbound is at South Acton.
    The Waverley station needs an elevator or less steep stairs. Both Waverley and Belmont stations could use handicap boarding ramps. Most of the time I travel with my computer in a wheeled pack. Lifting this pack is awkward and so is stepping up into the passenger car. The first step is higher than my knee, so I need both hands for climbing.
    Minor additions to stations that improve accessibility would be helpful.

    1. Yes. There is a big need for accessibility improvements. The list is long and the Belmont stations have low ridership so they are low on the list.

      Hopefully, we can get them addressed sooner rather than later!

  27. Well I’m retired and no long in the midst of this problem. However, I do recall how badly the Framingham line was coming back from work, once or twice the train sat for over 2 hours, and going to work delays,always a problem, but I think looking at each line’s needs is good. Shifting from cars to trains, especially if electrified, and putting an investment in tracks that could provide faster service, would, with frequent service, give car drives pause to shift. In the Midwest, some 80 years ago there was interurban train service, and maybe we need to bring back, and bring it to all of the commonwealth, connecting all major town,cities with regular rail service, certainly M-F, and certainly with some daily frequency, early AM, Mid AM, early PM, Mid PM, late PM. And car parks for EVERY station so the traveler could drive to a nearby station, park, catch that Interurban Train to the destination they require.

  28. Adding a dedicated bus lane to and from Alewife will be a huge boost to the operation efficiency there, quicker turn around and attract more people to ride the bus. Also, I believe that we need to prohibit drivers from Route-2 east bound, make a left turn at the base of the ramp and turn make a left turn onto Route-16 east. These traffic are extremely bad as they totally clogged up the on-off ramp at Alewife; not only causing trouble for bus, commuters form Alewife Garage. But also present a huge threat to people using the bike trail and walkway. They should be ticketed and fined for every violation of this rule.

    1. Hi Senator,
      I think buses can serve as a cost-effective alternative to expanding parking at many stations, but we also have to adapt bus service to best fit each region the commuter rail serves. Within 128, it makes sense to increase traditional MBTA bus services since there are bus routes in place, and most towns are dense enough and are built up enough (i.e. have sidewalks) to support regular 60-ft buses. Outside of 128, as the population get more sparse, it would make sense to shift to a different model. One potential idea would be to adapt the service model of the Bridj shuttles that used to run in Cambridge. Instead of running a large bus on a fixed route, the company used smaller buses that ran more flexible routes based on people requesting a ride via an app. This way people in towns without sidewalks and pedestrian unfriendly roads don’t have to walk long distances to use the bus, If I remember correctly, the cost of the service was $5, which is equivalent to parking fee at a lot, and has the added benefit of not having to fight for a parking space, etc.

  29. I think reframing the question is appropriate for an issue like this. IS there a way to focus more on processes involved here and less on the physical plant (that takes time, money and there are competing uses for those dollars)? The goal is to change commuter’s behavior and unless the reliability, quality and convenience of rail/bus exceeds getting there on your own, getting there on your own will keep winning.

    Are there processes/procedures that would be a more tenable avenue to focus on here? Anything that precludes the need to build anything new seems to be a winner in my book.

  30. For any of these parking lots, have we done some sort of a study to determine how many of the users are local (could, perhaps, walk or use a bike or a scooter, if that were made as nice as possible) versus how many are from further away?

    (To anyone of the I’ll-never-bike tribe — the goal is not to get you personally on a bike, but rather to make the choice more attractive to someone else who is more open to persuasion, and free up a little road and parking space.)

    1. I used to bike to Alewife. But now I need to drop off and pick up my son, I have to drive. I enjoys biking a lot but it is not safe enough and convenient enough for a daily commute. Everything is too spread out and it is designed for cars. And also, Belmont should provide a large parking lot for neighboring towns if possible to reduce the traffic and pollution impact

  31. It’s encouraging to read all this – there are many ways to address congestion; give the professionals resources to experiment, evaluate the results and implement modifications quickly. Frequent service and shuttles are key.

  32. “We need to get people out of cars into commuter trains, capturing trips that people are already making.”

    Will never happen the way the MBTA is being run. I basically try not to take the red line anymore as I cannot count on being at work on time.

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