MBTA is missing big opportunity with commuter rail

Regional rail, electrification should not be overlooked in capital spending plan

A FEW WEEKS AGO I, along with hundreds of others gathered at the opening of the first phase of the Green Line extension, felt a huge sense of pride seeing the first major expansion to the rapid transit network since the 1980s.

There were loud cheers as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley both called on the region and the MBTA to invest in expanding transit with a boldness suited for the times. The GLX opening is an important step forward, but it represents only a fraction of what we ought to be doing to improve our regional transportation system.

The Boston region is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise – just ask anyone holding an insurance policy in the Seaport. Our reputation as “Titletown” could refer to either our sports championships or our notorious traffic gridlock. Boston rivals New York as one of the most expensive cities in the country for housing and, according to the Brookings Institution, Boston bests the Big Apple in income inequality. Despite these factors, TransitMatters is bullish on the ability of public transit to lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce gridlock, spur the creation of denser and more affordable housing, and connect low-income residents to jobs. The MBTA is, and ought to be, at the center of efforts to achieve these goals.

Unfortunately, the MBTA continues to drag its feet in critical transit and rail investments. This was recently underscored by the release of the MBTA’s first real capital investment plan in three years. The five-year plan included no real money to electrify the existing commuter rail system, no new funding to connect the Red and Blue Lines, no provisions to extend the Green Line to Route 16, no funding for any major project not already under construction.

I would like to focus here on the gaping hole in regional rail funding. The T has spent the better part of three years failing to fulfill the clear direction and vote of the previous board (the highly regarded Fiscal and Management Control Board) to advance electrification of our regional rail system. Instead of advancing this important initiative, the T has ducked questions, missed deadlines, and deprioritized this transformative investment.

Transforming the commuter rail network into a regional rail system presents perhaps the biggest opportunity in the T’s history. Stretching from the middle of the Commonwealth to deep in Rhode Island out to the far reaches of the North Shore and the Merrimack Valley at the New Hampshire state line, the size and scale of the MBTA’s network is the envy of many Sun Belt cities that have to build new systems from scratch or claw back access from private freight companies who own the track.

It’s noteworthy that “electrification” doesn’t appear once in the entire 134-page capital investment plan document in relation to commuter rail. There is a disappointing sentiment emanating from some at MassDOT that the MBTA’s commuter rail network is nothing more than a large fixed-route system that only serves one purpose (a myopic view of the potential for a regional rail system) and it’s too expensive to even consider fixing it. But the cost of doing nothing is even more expensive.

Massachusetts needs a regional rail system that provides service delivery that responds to post-pandemic travel patterns and needs.  It needs a system that attracts enough car drivers to alleviate some of the chronic traffic congestion that wastes our time, fuel, and money and degrades our air quality. It needs a system that, especially in the inner-core communities of Greater Boston, provides service as if it were a subway – true rapid transit.

Attracting more riders to a high-quality regional rail system is not just in the region’s interest, it is in the T’s self-interest because before the pandemic, commuter rail fares represented one-third of all fare revenues. The T cannot financially recover from the pandemic if it fails to encourage more riders to use the rail system. And riders will come when the service improves.

There has been a fundamental reckoning with the purpose of transit and transit equity in the wake of COVID. The MBTA has done an admirable job with its approach to bus service, but to dismiss (or slow walk) a similar process on a system that stretches halfway across the Commonwealth is incredibly short-sighted and leaves out environmental justice communities outside of the MBTA bus network’s core area.

There are many other reasons to support advancing a comprehensive regional rail strategy that includes electrification.  One is regional transportation equity.

Regional rail unlocks the potential of local transit that Massachusetts towns, cities, and regions have shown the willingness to invest in. Trains that pass through communities at very long intervals and only serve one trip purpose struggle to build connections to local transit services. But  frequent, affordable service that residents can access for any need touches off a positive growth cycle. Our regional transit authorities  have shown entrepreneurial energy, willingness to experiment, and eagerness to grow, while many municipalities are experimenting with their own local transit services such as micro transit.

The MBTA must match this energy by providing the frequent, reliable, clean, and affordable regional rail service that can connect all of this burgeoning transit service into a cohesive and integrated region-wide network. Our regional transit authorities and even the MBTA’s local and suburban bus network can connect residents to the stations–but they can do so much more if they work together. They can also allow for car-free mobility in our Gateway Cities and major suburban centers.

The ultimate success of Gateway Cities relies on a rail-based strategy. This administration has rightfully acknowledged that the region has many centers of gravity, nodding to the distributed nature of how people live and work now. Failing to put emphasis into developing an emission-free, congestion-free alternative to connect said centers of gravity to each other is short-sighted.

Massachusetts voters get this. According to a MassINC Polling Group poll last summer, “majorities of residents think shifting the commuter rail towards a regional rail model would likely increase train ridership (85 percent), decrease traffic congestion (80 percent) and greenhouse gas emissions (69 percent), and spread jobs to places along the rail lines beyond Boston (80 percent).”

As Massachusetts emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to make some intelligent decisions about how to build and nurture a stronger, more inclusive economy. A regional rail system that connects the state’s Gateway Cities, provides better access to jobs and housing, and responds to more flexible travel patterns and needs, can be a major contributor to strengthening our region.  What we’re deciding now is whether we have the political courage to build the transit and rail network that will be the backbone of a greener, more prosperous, and equitable Commonwealth.

Meet the Author

Jarred Johnson

CEO and development director, TransitMatters
Every region and every resident, regardless of whether they ever use it, benefits from a high-quality, electrified regional rail network. If the MBTA Board abandons the work undertaken by its predecessor board, it would do a significant disservice to the people of Massachusetts at a critical time in our history.

Jarred Johnson is the executive director of TransitMatters.