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Spilling the T: What’s Wrong with Boston’s Public Transit

Public transportation provides communities with affordable transportation, decreased pollution, reduced road congestion, and increased economic development. Many environmentalists tout the expansion of public transportation as one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the utilization of public transportation saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and reduces carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons every year. Communities with public transit also enjoy increased home values and higher economic returns, while individual citizens experience higher personal mobility as well as safer and cheaper commutes compared with people who drive cars.

Considering these positive outcomes, increasing support for public transit seems like an easy choice; however, 45% of Americans still have no access to public transportation and many who do are often disappointed by unreliable service. According to a recent report by the International Association of Public Transport, U.S. transit systems lag far behind many other countries, with New York being the only American metro system among the world’s top 10 busiest networks. The report also cites a decline in ridership in nearly every major U.S. city in 2017, while almost every other global region experienced an increase in ridership.

Aging infrastructure and insurmountable debt plagues many of the U.S.’s oldest and largest public transportation systems, including New York City and Boston. In fact, Boston is home to America’s first public transit system, dating back to the first ferry system in 1631 and the first subway tunnel, which opened under Boston Common in 1897 and is still used today. Boston is also the birthplace of articulated cars, which are two subway cars or buses joined in the middle that can easily maneuver tight turns while carrying more passengers. These double cars are still used on the green and silver lines and in many other metro systems around the world.

Though this rich history makes the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) an exciting destination for transit enthusiasts, many Bostonians have become disgruntled with regular delays and a horde of derailments and other accidents. Many of these accidents are a result of aging equipment, including a red line train that derailed in June, crashing into multiple equipment sheds and inflicting damage that led to months of delays. A fractured axle on one of the cars caused the crash. This particular red line train was put into service in 1969 and was one of the oldest in the fleet.

Other delays and accidents have been the result of the city’s aging signaling system. When the signaling system breaks down, either because of regular wear and tear or the countless accidents, MBTA workers are forced to direct trains manually, slowing down the system. In 2015, a series of winter storms left the T in such disarray that the MBTA was forced to suspend service on a number of lines. This debacle led Governor Charlie Baker to appoint a special advisory panel to investigate the financial and structural issues of the MBTA and write a report with recommendations to improve the system.

Nevertheless, service continues to be unreliable and fares are still increasing, with the most recent fare increase on July 1st 2019. The MBTA seems to be half-heartedly trying to dig itself out of an increasingly large hole. The agency is currently running a $36.5 million deficit, with approximately $480 million in debt. Large debts prevent the MBTA from investing in necessary repairs and upgrades to newer trains and equipment. It is currently estimated that the repair backlog is somewhere near $10 billion.

Though money and infrastructure present incredible obstacles to a successful revitalization of the MBTA, the biggest issue may be lack of political action. Many state leaders, in particular Governor Charlie Baker, do not use the MBTA and are therefore detached from the woes of their commuting constituents. Convincing other citizens to vote for improved MBTA policy can be difficult, considering that the T’s weekday ridership is around 1.22 million in a state of 7 million people. Many Boston city counselors and representatives (who do use the T) have proposed possible funding methods including congestion pricing, raising the gas tax, or increasing tolls, but most of these officials have no say in the operations of the MBTA.

Without major investments and upgrades, the MBTA’s structural problems and rising debt will worsen. Metro Boston’s population is growing rapidly, closing in on 5 million, with about 300,000 new residents moving to the city in the last 10 years. If the MBTA is going to serve the people of Massachusetts, major infrastructure improvements are needed now.


Sources 

Acitelli, T. (2019, July 16). Why the T struggles, explained. Retrieved from https://boston.curbed.com/2019/7/16/20696003/boston-t-debt-funding-problems.

Andersen, T., & Levenson, M. (2019, Sep 25). Red line signal repair efforts completed; service back to normal after costly derailment in june. Boston Globe (Online) Retrieved from https://ezproxy.bu.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.proquest.com%2Fdocview%2F2296750534%3Faccountid%3D9676

CityLab, & University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management. (2019, July 6). The Global Mass Transit Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/09/the-global-mass-transit-revolution/570883/.

Howard, M. (2019, June 12). We Can End Boston’s Transportation Nightmare. Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/12/red-line-derailment-boston-traffic-miles-howard.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. (n.d.). The History of the T. Retrieved from https://www.mbta.com/history.

Public Transportation Benefits. (2019, February 7). Retrieved from https://www.apta.com/news-publications/public-transportation-benefits/.

Transit’s Role in Environmental Sustainability. (2015, December 14). Retrieved October 11, 2019, from https://www.transit.dot.gov/regulations-and-guidance/environmental-programs/transit-environmental-sustainability/transit-role.

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