Five steps for turning the MBTA around

Agency must address safety, service at the same time

 IN THE WAKE  of safety concerns, the unprecedented complete shutdown of the Orange Line, opaque and untimely communications, and service delivery obstacles, the MBTA continues to make quasi-daily headlines for all the wrong reasons. The performance of the MBTA directly impacts the quality of life and business climate in our region. No one disagrees that these challenges deserve our thought and attention—some even see this as an opportunity to create lasting, positive change.

When they take the reins in January, then-Governor Maura Healey and the next MBTA general manager must be ready to take the following five immediate actions to ensure that our public transit system is not only safe for riders, but is capable of delivering the levels and quality of service needed to support our economic competitiveness and ability to meet our climate goals.

A first step is to lean in on honest and transparent communication with the public. Riders and their employers want to know what the MBTA is doing to address safety, how long it is going to take, as well as when the T will restore and enhance service. Lack of reliable information can lead to unintended negative consequences well beyond a person’s commute – lost pay, missed health care appointments, and children waiting at daycare, to name a few. The general manager’s recent report to the MBTA Board of Directors on the real status of the Orange Line transformation project was a step in the right direction, despite several weeks of mixed messages and incorrect information. Any future diversions should be shorter with more advanced warning and clear communication throughout.

A second step is to get innovative. A public transit agency is in the business of providing reliable, frequent service, which is a critical foundation for ensuring and encouraging effective regional mobility. Right now, travel times across the system are slow and unreliable. For several weeks after the shutdown, the Orange Line travel times remained slow. Riders expect better (not worse) service after a diversion – a crucial point if similar work on the Red Line is imminent. The MBTA should continue to explore how to address workforce challenges that currently prevent the transit authority from safely restoring service levels to pre-pandemic ranges. It should also stay focused on advancing infrastructure improvements, such as bus-lanes, which will enable better service delivery in the future.

A third step is to apply lessons learned in real time. One thing the Orange Line shutdown proved was the importance of and potential for an improved commuter rail. During the Orange Line shutdown, more than 8,000 riders benefited from enhanced commuter rail service thanks to the frequency and affordability that enabled riders to access the commuter rail as an alternative. Going forward, the MBTA should continue to expand service and increase headways on the commuter rail, charge subway fares for all commuter rail stops inside Route 128, and use the mode as a viable alternative service option for future diversions.

A fourth step is to address the MBTA’s looming fiscal cliff and longer-term financial challenges. The T will face a large financial cliff for both the annual operating budget and capital infrastructure plan at some point within the next two years. To address this challenge, the incoming Healey administration should assess the MBTA’s fiscal needs considering the Federal Transit Administration safety review recommendations and bring key stakeholders together (legislators, transportation advocates, and the business community) to identify potential solutions. This should involve changes that expand capital procurement methods, public-private partnerships, debt relief for the MBTA, and strategic use of state surplus funds.

A fifth step is to prioritize equity—specifically the mobility of transit-dependent riders that rely on the MBTA to get around. The pandemic and the Orange Line shutdown underscored the vital role the T plays to help people live, work, and play in Greater Boston. A broad range of advocates, including A Better City, have called for the MBTA to implement a means-tested fare program and recently the MBTA presented a plan that is workable and affordable. In 2023, the MBTA should close the affordability gap and implement a means-tested fare for qualified riders between the ages of 26 to 64 years of age to ensure all members of the riding public have equitable access to the system.

The future of the MBTA is critical to the region’s economic competitiveness and to the Commonwealth’s ability to achieve its ambitious decarbonization goals by 2050. It generates huge returns on investment. In 2018, A Better City quantified the MBTA’s value to Greater Boston at $11.4 billion each year—that is a five time return over what the region pays ($2 billion/year) to operate the system. Expanding access and service increases ridership, decreases congestion, and provides faster service to the inner core. These are all win-win outcomes for the region.

While we continue to tackle the big questions, we cannot forget about the people the system serves; therefore, the T must do better at addressing safety and service simultaneously. This starts with incremental improvements to daily commutes that provide the service levels people and businesses need.

Caitlin Allen-Connelly is a senior advisor on transportation at the business group A Better City.