The MBTA’s challenges

Only a Governor not seeking re-election could close the Orange Line for a month. We need further bold steps like that — further bold steps to simplify the challenges that the men and women working for the T are facing. And I say that as a regular rider of the T.

I have long believed that the scarcest resource for the MBTA is management bandwidth. Every needed change requires management attention and organizations can only change so fast.

My overall sense has been that MBTA management has been focused on the right top priority — bringing the core subway systems to a state of good repair.

I have been thrilled and remain thrilled by the vision of essentially new subways — new tracks, new power, new signals, new trains — for the Orange, Red, and Green lines. MBTA engineers have done their homework to create a transformative vision for each of these lines grounded in a minute examination of every foot of their tracks.

I have not lost faith that these plans will be executed and T riders will feel the benefits for decades to come. But I’ll confess that my faith did falter just a little as the safety incidents multiplied and the Federal Transit Administration issued its report documenting safety lapses.

For me, these were the most telling lines of the report:

In interviews, MBTA’s leadership explained their objective for the agency to build its way into enhanced capacity, safer, and more reliable passenger service and a better state of repair through an aggressive program of capital projects. While the agency is focused on this priority, its aging assets and infrastructure continue to deteriorate and fail. For example, the July 21, 2022, train fire on the transit bridge over the Mystic River was caused when a rusted sill panel fell off a rail transit train and contacted the third rail.

The combination of overworked staff and aging assets has resulted in the organization being overwhelmed, chronic fatigue for key positions in the agency, lack of resources for training and supervision, and leadership priorities that emphasize meeting capital project demands above passenger operations, preventive maintenance, and even safety.

FTA Safety Management Inspection, Page 7-8

I could easily imagine myself in a back seat in the FTA’s interviews — watching MBTA leaders explain to the FTA investigators the same transformative vision for the subways that they have explained to me. But the recent safety events and the findings of the FTA deliver a sobering message to MBTA leaders: You are trying to do more than you and your organization can handle.

That message creates a profound dilemma for management. On the one hand, they cannot slow down the capital plan for the core system — they do have an ancient infrastructure that is falling apart. On the other hand, it is now clear that the whole organization is overextended.

I credit management for pivoting hard in the face of that dilemma and admitting that the organization needs some relief: Even as I wait for a train or stand in a crowded train, I am glad that they cut Red Line service frequency. And I fully support their tough decision on the Orange Line and will support further necessary shutdowns.

We can fault management, perhaps, for not recognizing sooner that the organization was overextended. The MBTA now has a staffing study in progress. It appears likely that study will confirm that to achieve safe operations and to successfully implement its capital projects, the MBTA needs to expand its workforce. Had that finding been reached five or ten years ago, we might be in a different place. But hindsight is 20-20 and I can’t claim to have foreseen the problem myself. Transit agencies across the country are experiencing similar challenges; it is not easy to hire transit professionals.

As one legislator, I will do the following over the months to come:

  • I will support management decisions to cut or suspend service as necessary to achieve immediate and longer-term safety goals. As the chair of the MBTA board said in a recent legislative hearing, the “Safety first” principle has to mean safety first. I agree. Management should ruthlessly sacrifice service as necessary to achieve safety.
  • I will defer advocacy of ambitious new service ideas the consideration of which might distract management from improving safety in its core operations. I have always felt an obligation as a politician to respect the need for management to focus first on state of good repair, but I will be especially conscious of that obligation.
  • If the MBTA concludes that it needs an infusion of operating funds to achieve greater organizational depth, I will support that. The legislature has not at any time in recent memory refused an MBTA request for additional funds.
  • I will do my best to share emerging service changes with constituents as they develop.

I have been riding the MBTA for decades and I have come to love the system — I know its faults, but I’m also grateful for the thousands of good rides I have had. I hope and believe that we can rebuild the organization together.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

52 replies on “The MBTA’s challenges”

  1. Thanks for this commentary. I agree that although the T needs a lot of repair – and could use a lot more expansion – it’s basically a good system.

  2. Thank you Will for your comments. I agree with all you have written above. Before the Pandemic I used Public Transit often, I have gotten into the mode of using other ways to get around, but, would like to get back to public transit.
    I grew up in Southern California, where there was next to no decent transit. I really appreciate what we have even though mass improvements would be welcome. I hope there will be lots of support for creating good, safe public transport for now and the future.

  3. The shutdowns have seemed drastic, as an observer, but I am glad they are fixing things. Pity more can’t be done off-hours. From the 80’s and 90’s I recall bus rides on the green and red lines for occasional service outages. In my business we schedule downtime in advance to shoehorn in maintenance that can’t be done off-hours. It’s not unusual to have temporary bussing on these lines, it’s unusual to have multiple lines out of service at the same time; and the safety issues have compounded an awkward scheduling problem.

    1. Yes. That’s the thing — trying to do the repairs in off hours is prohibitively difficult. Too much of the available work time gets expended on setup and take-down. They just can’t get the needed maintenance done without some loss of service.

  4. We need employers to be just as supportive as you are when employees can’t get to work on time. I, too, relied on the MBTA for many years of employment. Everyone will need to adjust as rides take a longer time.

  5. What the T needs to do is plan an annual closure of each of the subway lines for a week each summer for “ major maintenance “ this only makes sense since trying to do track replacement at night gives you only 2 or 3 hours of work time each night costing a full 8 hour shift. Shutting down the lines at this time of the years speaks to the lack of maintenance and care which tells me it is time to flush the management of the T

  6. I have enormous respect for Will’s commitment and devotion to the citizens of Greater Boston. Nonetheless, ‘safety first’ simply CANNOT mean crowded trains until a truly effective broad-spectrum vaccine against coronavirus is widely available. In the absence of such a vaccine, ‘safety first’ would mean mandating both face masks and two-metre/ six-foot distancing between commuters; the latter is not remotely possible on crowded trains. Those who regard the coronavirus pandemic as over are simply living in denial. Reduction in the frequency of service will kill some number of the elderly, the chronically ill, and the medically underserved: exactly those whom we should be striving to protect.

  7. Thanks Will. Wouldn’t it be a wise idea to transfer some of the surplus tax monies the State currently has to the T. At least some? Wouldn’t this be a better way to invest the money rather than returning it to the taxpayers, who have already paid?

  8. I feel that the T situation has become ridiculous. Problems and delays on any of the lines should be exceptions, not the norms. 15-minute waits? 20 if you are on a specific branch?
    But what I feel is worse is the 71 bus situation. The schedule shifted without notice several weeks back. Busses become “ghosts”, (I’ve heard that even with those apps which show supposed transponder information, busses simply disappear from the map), bus drivers aren’t told a thing because they might pass that on to passengers and such changes are a secret (shhhhh). Excatly how much time should we build into our commute to take these now-regular delays into account?
    It has become a regular joke: oh, it’s Friday; expect up to an extra 30-minute wait for the 71. Each time it happens the joke gets worse.
    Back in the day, there would be a T official on duty at station bus areas to tell us of delays and why, or when the next XX bus should be here. Now the T doesn’t want to be held accountable when things happen.

    1. I agree completely with Arthur. I take the 73 in the evening. There’s been several times in recent weeks that the schedule board in the subway, will show the next bus due in 1 minute. Then, in the blink of an eye, it changes to show that the next bus will be in 15 or even more minutes. The bus that was due is a “ghost” – it never showed up. It’s very annoying.

      1. These are valid complaints. Others have complained of this and I’ve experienced this too as a 71/73 rider and we have asked the T about it. Ghost buses happen when a trip is lost (likely due to employee shortages) or held for scheduling (after having lost time on route, it makes sense to the next scheduled time) and the online system is not manually updated by the dispatchers. The T is working on linking the dispatching decision records more closely with the public facing system, but right now it is depends on manual actions which don’t always happen.

    2. Sometimes the imminent 75 drops off for 10 minutes, or so leaving a knot in my stomach staring down a 50 minute wait, but then it pops back up. So, as a rider you face a choice- find an alternate route if you’ve got time, $$$ and are up for a long walk, or wait it out. A driver said it was likely due to a driver hand-off. Turning off the transponder greys my hair.

  9. I agree with you, but I think more money should be spent on the T. It is more important than roads and should be subsidized by the state (and federal government.) we need to make it safer and more efficient.

  10. The fundamental problem with this and many other government programs at the state and local level is the natural tendency to economize on maintenance and make up for it with capital projects. That’s because the operating budgets must by law be balanced. When balancing them is tough, the first thing cut is almost always maintenance, not staff. I don’t know the solution: eliminating the requirement for a balanced operating budget is dangerous. But no household would operate that way, saying, for example, I won’t patch the roof this year because I’ll just replace it in two or three years.

  11. The T has, along with the Boston Public Schools, been systematically subjected for decades to budget reductions in order to feed the hungry beast of tax cuts that mostly benefit the already mightily rich. It’s so convenient to blame factors such as management and neglect. Why don’t we ask, how come those problems don’t afflict dozens of well-performing systems worldwide? It’s our politics – division of wealth – rather than the management capabilities of people in organizations such as the MBTA.

    1. I’m sorry but you are completely wrong about funding for Boston Public Schools. The have a budget of over $1 Billion dollars per year and recently passed funding in 2020 of over $1 million to increase that budget. Funding for BPS has only gone up in the recent decade. A better question is if the money is being spent wisely and if Boston is getting a good and reasonable ROI on that increased funding. Doing a little more research is always better than making false or ill advised assumptions.

    2. Could it be that without a living wage that education spending is sort of pouring good money after bad. I think a top- the top priority should be education spending, including trades of course, but it must come with recognizing that the corporate and investment paradigm is thievery.

  12. Will, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    What is the total budget for the MBTA? how does that break down among state, local, and federal contributions?

    1. The operating budget is about $2.6b of which about $1.4b comes from the state and about $0.2b from local governments. Normally, the balance would be mostly fares, but currently federal assistance is plugging the loss of fare revenues as COVID has driven ridership down. Full details here..

      The capital budget is always heavily dependent on federal funds.

  13. Will,
    Would you have treated the out-going Governor the same, if he wasn’t a Republican? I doubt it.
    What responsibility do you and the Democrat controlled Legislature take in MBTA oversight? Obviously, none.

  14. The T needs to be broken up into independent sub authorities or RTA’s. The T as we know it will be “steel wheels on steel rails” and can focus it’s priorities there. Boston and it’s abutting communities would have it’s own bus RTA. We could have maybe 7 or 8 bus RTA’s that would be clustered around about that many communities in common for each RTA. They would be independent from the T and make decisions in the interest of their constituent communities. They would allowed to and encouraged to make cooperative pacts like honoring passes for commuters that need to pass through their system, lending equipment, sharing maintenance resources etc.. In the private sector the solution to limited management bandwidth is parallel decisions without duplication. I think the T needs to take a page from the private sector management playbook.

  15. Maintenance isn’t glamorous.

    The T needs to stop being penny-wise and pound-foolish, on top of being pound-spend (capital projects) and penny-pinch (defer/outsource maintenance).

    My neighbor was a T mechanic. He retired because outsourced (“cheaper”) maintenance caused frustration for permanent workers who had to constantly fix things that had been “fixed” elsewhere, and because their work was not sufficiently supported.

    Senior managers will never get shiny plaques with their names on them for making sure that those who get grease on their hands and take pride in their work have what they need to maintain infrastructure. They only get shiny plaques for shiny new things. “Innovation” is rewarded while “maintenance” elicits a shrug. This happens in *every* industry and field, but it caused a lot of the trouble we see now in the T.

    Maintainers need more credit and more respect. Maintainers *are* safety. As long as the T keeps trying to maintain on the cheap, safety will suffer.

  16. Will, thank you for your thoughts. Howevdr, as a rider of the MBTA for over 60 years. I find that many issues are caused by management and senior staff such as Inspectors. The T is attempting to hire new bud drivers but they are not being properly trained and there I as no supervision. There should be an Inspector at the beginning and end of every bus route. Schedules are not being adhered to and the delays are not all caused by traffic. Cutting service is not the answer and neither is skipping a trip on a route because a driver is out sick or on vacation. The proposed redesign of various routes is being designed by people who don’t ride the T. The various surveys I receive are not asking the right questions.

    1. No one wants to cut service, but sometimes it’s the only safe option and I think that’s the place we are in quite often right now.

      I think everyone agrees that we need more inspectors and more training — our workforce shortage makes that hard, but hopefully we can get there.

      1. I’ve been noticing several bus drivers are, “lead foots,” this must be addressed IMMEDIATELY by inspectors, MBTA administration, local politicians.

  17. Not only are you on top of issues affecting your constituents … give us a chance to have input during the process…..your communication skills should be the standard for all local officials….welcome to Allston/ Brighton! Bruce Felton

  18. Thank you Will. I much appreciate your passionate support for the T. However, I think you have been too kind on the management of the T over the past decade. Our two-term governor (Baker) failed early on to provide full support for the T early on in his first term. His focus was on cost cutting and saving money at the expense of the day-to-day ops of the system. Staff cut backs and out sourcing all in the name of efficiency was an early focus of Baker and his team of management gurus; focus on capital investment in replacing aged rolling stock came later. At which point we could all get excited in the new cars for the Red, Orange and Green lines….but hold on we were going to have wait 10 years for replacements to fully arrive!! In the meanwhile, we needed to maintain existing stock with a depleted workforce. Go figure…
    So my take is that what is happening here in 2022 is the result of systemic failure resulting from mis-management for decades.
    Thanks for your time.

  19. …. And let’s not forget another “quality of life” issues with public transit. People have to feel safe in order to ride the T and that includes safe from the open drug use present at stations (e.g. Downtown Crossing, where I catch the red line every day). I see people nodding off on platforms and the T. The stench of pot smoke in subway platforms is becoming more and more present and it is inescapable. I’ve been in cars where kids are actively smoking pot and the pot smoke fills the car. The stench is real and it lingers. We don’t have transit officers where and when we need them, and I’m not going to call the T Police if I’m trapped in a car with a scary person because I don’t want to be overheard reporting them. I take the T everyday and as I age I feel more and more vulnerable doing it. My daughter won’t ride the T and I know many other people who won’t either – the infrequent service and the open drug use is too daunting.

  20. Will,
    As always, your comments and insights resonate with me. Indeed, safety first. I think you are right and I so appreciate this. I might add that I do hope that they will continue to pay attention to some rather disturbing deficiencies in the stations. The alarming number of delinquent escalators and elevators, crumbling walls within the stations and inadequate lighting at entrances and within a number of stations. These, too, are safety issues . And, I believe that station and train appearances have an impact on how the public respects the system. Thanks again, Will.

  21. This is time to look back and figure out how we got here. When safety is the primary reason for the current problems, you need to look at preventive maintenance and find out why it wasn’t done. I suspect strongly that it was loss of manpower. This current governor campaigned on his goal “to fix the T”. He “fixed” it by letting MBTA employees leave and not replacing them. As important as budgets become to the mgmt. team it should be just as important to maintain “preventive mtce.”

  22. It’s worse than letting employees leave — he fired the manager for not keeping the T running through a series of snowstorms that smashed all records. With that kind of “oversight”, who would want to take a management role?

    1. The Governor blamed Beverly for everything despite her having just been hired. He threw her under the bus. She was a good manager had shebeen given the chance. Baker never rode the T

  23. It’s time to improve our systems in safety, equipment as well as the proper personnel for efficient operation. We need to be willing to invest the funds needed . For so many years we have focused on cutting taxes – instead of paying our way toward an improved future.

  24. Will, I agree with, and admire your positive statement on what is happening with the T; aggressive action was required, there was really no alternative choice. The one month shut down, of course, caused many financial pain, and inconvenience for many, but the end result should more than make up for this blip.

  25. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. However, I must disagree with several points you make, and call attention to a significant hole in your argument.
    First, it is disappointing to think about putting future projects on the back burner will set us up for the next set of problems. The region is choking on traffic, and the expanding economy will suffocate if folks can’t find a place to live and travel around the state.
    Folks don’t measure commuting in miles, we measure it in time. We look at jobs and housing based on time, cost, and stress of the daily commute. While we can’t create new land, fast, efficient, and frequent rail service will transform seemingly distant communities into viable homes for folks working in and around Boston.
    We are flirting with a vision of regional rail, but we are also subverting the vision with our devotion to the status-quo. Amtrak electrified the Northeast Corridor between New Haven and Boston in 2000, but for almost 23 years the MBTA has been running diesel trains under the catenary.
    We don’t need to rebuild the entire system all at once, but we can incorporate a vision of future rail service into current projects. If we renovate a commuter rail station, why don’t we include raised platforms in the design? Why don’t we have a program to build raised platforms, prioritized on the stations with the highest ridership?
    Putting future projects aside, because we lack bandwidth, is a declaration of failure that we would not tolerate elsewhere in public governance. Sorry, we can’t build a new high school, maintain our current buildings, and provide 180 days of instruction at the same time.
    We lack talented transit administrators? We are attracting talented people to some of the best universities and graduate programs in the world, but we can’t generate enough expertise to run our transit system?
    Solutions don’t need to be expensive. Buses are cheap and easy to deploy. We found that out when we ran replacement service during the Orange Line closure. However, the MBTA runs unreliable, deteriorating bus service. We can build nice new bus lanes, but it’s an exercise in futility when service is being reduced to 15 or 20 minute intervals. MBTA dispatchers can’t find a way to solve regular weekend bus bunching. We can spend billions on a Green Line extension, but we can’t run buses that connect the new trains to neighboring communities.
    In Arlington, we rely on the MBTA to transport students to our middle and high schools, and the bus service has never been worse. We are swamped by complaints from parents because their children can’t get to or from school on time.
    There are times we must take the bull by the tail and face the situation squarely. This is one of those times.

    1. Senator Brownsberger,
      Thank you, for your MBTA update and your thorough report.
      I, too enjoy and am grateful for our MBTA service. While attending 9.5 years at Harvard, from 1997 until 2006, that’s how I traveled back and forth to my classes and obligations. The service was always reliable for my needs, and the drivers were always alert, cautious, friendly, and pleasant. I appreciate what the plight to improve and upgrade the entire system entails. Thank you for your in depth update and dedication.
      I am grateful that you are on top of this necessary and major
      infrastructure project, along with so many other issues and existing projects, that currently require your attention and consideration. Best wishes. Keep up the good work.
      Elaine Grey
      Watertown Constituent

  26. Yes, maintenance is essential, which means that hiring enough skilled workers is also essential.

    I grew up in New York City, and was taking the subway daily in starting around when city’s financial mismanagement caught up with them, and subway maintenance was cut to the bone. Some of the MBTA’s recent problems bring back unpleasant memories (though New York was funding day-to-day expenses out of the capital budget). Let’s not dig ourselves into the same sort of hole as New York did.

  27. I was affected by the diversion, but I wasn’t overly annoyed with the Governor for exercising the FTA’s 30-day option. The pathology of the MBTA and woe of riders is laid squarely at the feet of the Massachusetts body politic in their vision for growth and wealth.

    1. It’s not trickling down and riders are a disparate constituency who may soon catch on to the necessity of MBTA strikes and the concomitant workouts.

  28. It’s little better that farce to claim that Downtown Crossing is handicapped accessible. I just took the Red Line from Harvard to Dwntwnxng and there’s no elevator or escalator up to the Forest Hills bound platform. There’s an elevator at the tail end of the RL platform, but it brings you outside of the fare gate’s onto the Oak Grove direction. So, yeah it’s nominally handicapped accessible. Bore out all of the downtown area to meet the needs of 2022 please

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