It is not easy to fully assess the impact of the recent Orange Line closure. Hopefully the Federal Transit Administration is satisfied with the repairs and riders can enjoy the promised faster ride times. Credit goes to MBTA leaders and workers for reopening the system on time, however, now is not the time to celebrate. The closure resulted in substantial and unspoken costs to users and economic harm to the entire region. The MBTA is still in crisis, but there are important lessons to be learned from this experience.
Fixing the orange line is just one small step towards our larger goals. There is no doubt that a safe, reliable and capable public transit system is essential to the future prosperity of the Greater Boston area. The MBTA offers benefits for those who never travel directly on a train, bus or ferry. The T provides access to jobs and opportunities for transit-dependent commuters and neighborhoods without congested roads and highways. Furthermore, the Commonwealth cannot achieve our statewide carbon emissions goals without upgrading current MBTA infrastructure.
The way we repair the subway system will require new approaches to make major repairs, but a prolonged shutdown of a subway line should not be replicated. While it is beneficial for construction crews to have access to a site for weeks on end, the Orange Line closure has caused massive delays to ridership, and this disruption should not be ignored. Even if youPlanned stops are necessary, MBTA should find ways to schedule stops for nights and weekends, or for short durations which are always associated with enhanced alternative service options.
Find money on the commuter train
Over the past month, the MBTA has been testing new ways to improve commuter train frequency, add new bus lanes and reduce train travel costs. It is now clear that these ideas can create the right incentives for people to use public transit. In fact, the lessons on the frequency and cost of commuter trains should serve as 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 removed fares for commuter rail riders systemwide in areas closest to downtown Boston. This has resulted in an increase of 13,000 additional commuter rail passengers in the final week of the Orange line shutdown.
It’s no surprise that runners responded to these prompts. During the shutdown, riders from communities within or along Route 128 such as Lynn, Reading, Waltham and Neeham could ride for free. These discounts have expired, so again, a one-way ticket to Boston from these areas is $7. It’s not reasonable for the commuter train to be free for everyone, but more frequent schedules combined with a considerably lower price can be a very efficient way to get passengers on trains and out of their cars. .
A more frequent and more affordable commuter rail system is the promise of a regional rail system, articulated in numerous transportation studies over the past few years. This infrastructure investment is also a critical component to the success of MBTA Communities’ new transit-focused housing act. To help solve the area’s housing and traffic problems, transforming commuter rail into a regional rail system must be a priority for the next governor and the leadership of Massachusetts’ transit agencies.
Steps to take now
In the immediate future, buses and metros must run more frequently. Today, every MBTA subway line operates at a significantly reduced frequency, including the reopened Orange Line. The FTA ordered the MBTA to hire additional employees for its operations and control center to better monitor the flow of subway vehicles. Three months later, the MBTA is still operating fewer trains because of this staffing problem and riders continue to suffer.
The MBTA and FTA must show the same level of urgency on the subway frequency as they did with Orange Line track repairs. Infrequent subway service creates crowded trains, longer commute times, and discourages people from returning to work or even taking the T. Temporary and contract employees should be an option to staff these control center positions and these bus lines if that is what is needed to return the subway and bus system to the full-service schedules Greater Boston depends on.
Finally, the MBTA’s budget must change to repair deficient infrastructure, convert many routes to low-emission trains and buses, and absorb the additional manpower required by the FTA safety review. The MBTA faces a budget cliff in less than two years, giving the next governor and the legislature an opportunity to provide those resources.
The shutdown likely strengthened the resolve to resolve MBTA’s challenges. Again, we understand the traffic jams and damage caused to riders when the subway system does not operate properly. Before this latest reminder dies, we can leverage it to create better transit service, increased transit frequency, and new pricing approaches to achieve the necessary benefits for the people and communities of this region. .
Rick Dimino is CEO of A Better City.