It is not easy to evaluate the full impact of the recent Orange Line shutdown. Hopefully, the Federal Transit Administration is satisfied with the repairs and riders can benefit from promised faster travel times. Credit is due to the MBTA leaders and workers for reopening the system on schedule, however, this is no time to celebrate. The shutdown resulted in substantial and unspoken costs to riders, and economic harm to the entire region. The MBTA is still in a crisis, but there are important lessons from this experience.
Fixing the Orange Line is only a small step forward to our larger goals. There is no question that a safe, reliable and proficient transit system is essential for the future prosperity of the Greater Boston area. The MBTA delivers benefits to those who never directly ride on a train, bus or ferry. The T offers access to jobs and opportunities for transit-dependent riders and neighborhoods without overburdened roads and highways. Also, the commonwealth will not be able to reach our statewide carbon emission goals without upgrades to the current MBTA infrastructure.
How we fix the subway system will require new approaches to delivering on capital repairs, but the extended shutdown of a subway line should not be replicated. Even if there are benefits to construction crews having access to a site for weeks at a time, the Orange Line shutdown caused massive delays to the commutes for riders, and this disruption should not be dismissed. Even if targeted shutdowns are necessary, the MBTA should find ways to schedule shutdowns for nights and weekends, or for short durations that are always paired with enhanced alternative service options.
Finding Silver in the Commuter Rail
Over the past month, the MBTA tested new ways to improve frequency on the commuter rail, add new bus lanes and reduce the costs to ride trains. There is now clear evidence that these ideas can create the right incentives for people to use public transit. In fact, the lessons on commuter rail frequency and cost should be a guide for future investments and transit policy.
In September, the MBTA slightly increased frequency on commuter rail lines that share stations with the Orange Line. The MBTA also waived fares for the commuter rail riders systemwide in the areas closest to downtown Boston. This resulted in an increase of 13,000 additional riders on the commuter rail by the final week of the Orange Line shutdown.
It is not surprising that riders responded to these incentives. During the shutdown, riders in communities inside or along Route 128 such as Lynn, Reading, Waltham and Neeham could travel for free. These discounts expired, so once again a one-way ticket to Boston from these areas costs $7. It is not reasonable for the commuter rail to be free for everyone, but more frequent schedules combined with a dramatically lower price can be a very effective way to get riders onto trains and out of their cars.
A more frequent and affordable commuter rail system is the promise of a regional rail system, spelled out in many transportation studies completed in recent years. This infrastructure investment is also a critical component to the success of the new MBTA Communities transit-orientated housing law. To help address the both the region’s housing and traffic challenges, transforming the commuter rail into a regional rail system must be a priority of the next governor and leadership of Massachusetts’ transportation agencies.
Steps to Take Now
In the immediate future, buses and subways must run more frequently. Today, every MBTA subway line is running at dramatically reduced frequency, including the reopened Orange Line. The FTA ordered the MBTA to hire additional employees for their operations and control center to better monitor the flow of subway vehicles. Three months later, the MBTA is still running fewer trains because of this staffing concern and riders continue to suffer.
The MBTA and FTA need to show the same level of urgency on subway frequency as they did with Orange Line track repairs. Infrequent subway service creates crowded trains, longer commute times and discourages people to return to the workplace or even take the T. Temporary, contracted employees should be an option to staff these control center roles and bus lines if that is what is necessary to return the subway and bus system to the full-service schedules Greater Boston depends on.
Finally, the MBTA’s budget must change to fix deficient infrastructure, convert many trips to lower-emission trains and buses and absorb the additional workforce required by the FTA safety review. The MBTA faces a fiscal cliff in less than two years, giving the next governor and legislature an opportunity to provide these resources.
The shutdown likely strengthened the resolve to solve the challenges at the MBTA. Once again, we understand the traffic congestion and harm to riders when the subway system doesn’t work properly. Before this latest reminder fades away, we can harness it to create better transit service, increased transit frequency and new approaches to pricing to achieve the benefits that are necessary for the people and communities of this region.
Rick Dimino is CEO of A Better City.