T is for Tragedy

The MBTA

Crisis at the MBTA, known locally as “the T,” puts Boston’s future in jeaopardy. (Photo credit: UrbanMechanic)

The MBTA is in trouble. And unless something changes, it’s likely to get much worse before it gets better.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operates the first of its kind, the oldest subway system in the United States. That’s what those charming tour guides and duck boat drivers are happy to make known when passing by North or South Station. Step away from one of the system’s hubs, however, and it’s easy to see the statement for what it is: hardly a boast, far more a confession.

Serving nearly five million around Greater Boston and estimated to be the fourth busiest subway network in the country, you’d imagine service and revenue to be non-factors. You’d be wrong. The Boston Globe recently reported that the MBTA is the nation’s most-indebted public transit agency despite recent fare hikes and record ridership. Its annual debt payments are nearly equal to its annual income, which itself speaks volumes as to the pending catastrophe. Yearly reports demand immediate system-wide repair work, warning that all four subway lines are in dire need of new stock, track alignment, and a host of other updates. Year after year, little is done to change the status quo.

What action the MBTA has taken is often ineffectual. Fare increases and service cuts enacted this year will not balance the T’s budget nor pay for any significant repair work. Public outcry was swift and furious, asking why commuters should pay more and receive less if the “solution” will admittedly change nothing? Why indeed? The Authority’s leadership seems incapable of tackling its most basic problems, most likely for political reasons. As waiting times lengthen and older trains increasingly stop dead, extra stock sits idle and on-site personnel seems to shrink.

Enter politics; union rules limit the number of trips per operator per shift while staffing regulations ensure the availability of lucrative overtime in lieu of a fully-staffed system. The unions aren’t the only culprit, of course, but they’re a sizable one. Reluctance on Beacon Hill to raise fares further (for comparison, the New York City and Chicago systems cost $2.25 per ride against Boston’s $2.00 [previously $1.70]) or authorize new revenue streams ensures that deficits continue to mount. While the T has thus far been able to borrow enough to remain functional, it’s a race against time it looks likely to lose; the Authority’s own Advisory Board warns that without substantial change, they’ll hit their borrowing limit in three to five years.

The Global Economic Power Index ranks the Hub the sixth most economically-powerful city in the world, its rising star propelled by the area’s wealth of young professionals, research laboratories, and seemingly-unlimited innovative potential. Such a rise, however, could be imperiled by a looming rapid transit meltdown. The compact Commonwealth relieson its interconnected suburbs, particularly Quincy, Cambridge, and Somerville. Punitive service cuts, further reduced runtimes, or an all-out MBTA shutdown could paralyze the region. Families, individuals, and businesses see the city’s sprawling transit system as a boon to relocation. Its spiral into ruin may well steer newcomers elsewhere and force current residents to join them. And they’d take that rising star with them.

Change is needed, and it can’t wait much longer. It will likely be painful to both consumers’ wallets and politicians’ reelection campaigns, but the alternative is far worse. We need leadership willing to lay their influence on the line for a truly do-or-die cause while refusing to play games of their own—for example, some $3 million of the “MBTA’s debt” is preexisting from elsewhere in the state, shifted onto the T for political reasons.

Whether it’s higher prices for the people, fewer privileges for the unions, new accountability at MassDOT, or an all-else-fails MBTA bailout, something needs to happen. No one, rider or operator, worker of businessman, Democrat or Republican, is likely to enjoy it. Then again, that’s usually the sign of progress.

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