MBTA service levels need to be restored asap

Lack of training space in OCC cannot be excuse for lack of hiring

LET THIS SINK IN for a second: The MBTA this week announced that it won’t be able to return the subway system to regular service frequencies before Labor Day, and probably not until sometime in 2023.  This is because the Federal Transit Administration directed the T to solve the problem of understaffing and excessively long shifts at its Operations Control Center (OCC), and the T decided to do so by limiting the number of trains moving at any one time while it undertakes the process of hiring new dispatchers. That approach is not going well.

Imagine a world where roadway construction on a highway was happening every day, 24 hours a day. In addition to reducing the number of lanes, a gate would come down and shut down all lanes for 15 minutes. You just have to sit there in your car waiting for the gate to open. After 15 minutes, you could proceed again. Every day you’d have to assume that your trip will be longer by that potential delay, because you can never really know when the gate will come down when you are on your journey.  And when the gate goes up, the congestion of all those drivers jockeying for position will be miserable. That is what is happening on the T’s subway system now, every day, as service frequencies are reduced to weekend levels. The negative consequences of this are many, including people missing appointments, people showing up late for work, crowded trains, more driving (personal vehicles and Uber/Lyft), more carbon and particulate emissions, and overall less access to key destinations.

What we have now at the MBTA is a full-blown crisis.  It is a crisis worse than the winter meltdown of 2015.  A crisis worse than anything in recent memory, that must be taken seriously, triaged quickly, and resolved satisfactorily.  I have warned about this for months now: There’s no point blaming anyone for this. Posturing and finger pointing aren’t going to do anyone any good. There’s only one thing to do: fix this before Labor Day.

I understand better than most how challenging it must be to be working at the T right now, given the stretched resources, the pressure of FTA directives, the management of an old system, the continuing pandemic effects on hiring, and the unrelenting criticisms that come from riders, advocates, and the media.  I get it.  I’ve been there, and I know how it feels when you are working long hours seven days a week, and the return on your hard work is measured in small steps forward that barely register with people.  So I do not say lightly that this crisis cannot be allowed to persist beyond Labor Day, that every possible means and method needs to be brought to the effort to restore subway service frequencies.

It was astonishing to hear a T official at a board meeting use the size of the Operations Control Center as a reason, or excuse, for not ramping up hiring and training of new dispatchers.  There has to be a workaround to solve that. And it was a mistake from the start to limit hiring only from the ranks of current subway division operators.  I know as a matter of fact, not conjecture, that there are qualified potential hires out there performing related work activities or with sufficient knowledge of rail systems that the hiring net should be cast as wide as reasonably possible, offering even more generous hiring incentives, as befits a crisis of this magnitude.

An all-hands-on-deck approach to triaging this crisis would include bringing back as many retirees who are willing to step in even temporarily without delay, ramping up incentives to attract potential hires or retirees, finding a solution to the space constraints, and opening up hiring and training to non-T operators.  Federal and municipal political leaders need to head to Washington to meet with Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his team to find a way to satisfy the FTA’s legitimate concerns while also securing a commitment that it will quickly give the T some leeway in complying with the FTA’s directive in connection with OCC staffing. We need a temporary optimal solution before Labor Day. Such flexibility by FTA is necessary and appropriate, given the negative equity and environmental impacts of its directive. Also, this must be clearly understood: while OCC staffing at the T must be improved, and excessive overtime is not conducive to safety, there is no evidence, no suggestion of any kind, that any of the safety incidents that have occurred at the T were linked directly or indirectly to OCC staffing issues.

The FTA cannot be allowed to run roughshod on the people of metro Boston and the city economy.  Current service levels are causing real harm to people every day, and they are causing harm disproportionately to lower income people and people of color.  The current service levels would never pass an FTA equity analysis, so how can this possibly be viewed by the FTA as an acceptable way to comply with their safety directive?

The current service levels are also causing more mode shift to vehicular traffic, more congestion, and therefore more carbon and particulate matter emissions in communities that are environmental justice communities.  Is this federal policy? Is this acceptable to our environmental and equity advocates? Is this the dystopian future we are building as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic?

The current levels of subway service fail utterly to respond in a positive way to the three pillars of sustainability; the economy, the environment, and equity. Boston has an extraordinary mayor, who is lifting the city up from the ravages of the pandemic. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move Boston forward equitably and sustainably, but the people and their mayor need a fully functioning transit system to make that happen. The very idea that her efforts might be frustrated by barriers like inadequate training space in the T’s OCC is beyond comprehension and fundamentally unacceptable.

Once the fall kicks in, and students return to school, and colleges and universities are back in session, and employers are trying to adjust their workplace policies, the current subway service levels will become truly devastating.  They will further suppress transit ridership and make it difficult to attract those riders back in the future.  They will cause real harm to people in essential services jobs, our hospitals and home health care workers, and others who have to rely on the T. They will cause harm to students for whom the T is their yellow school bus.

The crisis we face is real, it’s serious, and it cannot be left unattended by our municipal, state, and federal leaders. As residents of metro Boston, we have the right to demand action – not posturing, not finger pointing, not can-kicking, but strong, decisive action. Everything that can be done must be done, and the city’s transit advocates are ready to roll up our sleeves to support good faith efforts to solve this crisis quickly.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation, and a board member of TransitMatters.