‘Outside the box’ thoughts on MBTA electrification
Four investments to produce a modern transit system
IN THE TRANSPORTATION SECTOR, there is an urgent need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and to reduce inequities in access to clean, reliable and affordable transportation. To do this, we must make major improvements in the MBTA’s facilities and services, specifically by immediately building the required infrastructure for bus and rail electrification, along with rapid implementation of other aspects of regional rail, especially frequent all-day service. Doing this requires a holistic approach to updating the whole MBTA system, and innovative, “outside the box” thinking.
The following specific changes are urgently needed.
First, the T should cancel its plans to spend $721 million on diesel commuter rail locomotives and trains. These rolling stock are expensive, unreliable, and environmentally unsustainable. They will seriously hamper our ability to reduce emissions as required by the 2022 climate law. Instead, all those funds should be redirected to implementing regional rail, and other steps towards implementing rail transformation, as approved by the former MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board. The $721 million would make a significant contribution to covering the cost of rail transformation Phase 1 (estimated by the control board in 2019 to be $1.5 billion, now increased to about $2.6 billion, according to A Better City). In addition, such a large state commitment of matching funds would increase the chances of Massachusetts securing major federal grants to pay for rail transformation.
Secondly, as discussed in the CommonWealth February 5 article “MBTA’s Widett plans don’t make sense,” the Widett Circle site in South Boston, which the T recently acquired, should be used for bus electrification rather than a diesel train storage facility. Using the site for train storage is incompatible with the control board’s goal of electrified, frequent, all-day regional rail service. The site presents a tremendous opportunity to advance decarbonization goals, as there is enough land on the site for a big new, state-of-the-art garage to accommodate 400 battery-electric buses.
Planning for this garage should start immediately, as it would enable the MBTA to make the fleet expansions necessary for the success of the ongoing bus network redesign. Adding a new Widett Circle bus facility to the updated Arborway and Quincy garages currently in progress will create much-needed bus storage and recharging space and flexibility, as the T implements plans to rapidly expand service, while simultaneously reconstructing the rest of these bus garages to accommodate a fully-electric fleet.
Third, as the T designs and implements major capital and service improvements like those described above, their staff should at the outset carefully study best practices for similar projects elsewhere in the US and abroad. One domestic example is Denver, which has stepped up electric bus procurement, initially purchasing 17 and recently adding 40 more.
Another example is Portland, Oregon, where, to supplement new electric vehicle purchases, the public transit agency Trimet began retrofitting diesel-electric hybrid buses with electric motors and long-range batteries, effectively making those buses all-electric. Following examples like these, the T must as appropriate incorporate best practices into their future vehicle procurements and operating procedures, as well as the designs of new facilities.
Finally, the T’s budget for fiscal year 2024 and the next five years should include a large and sustained increase in spending on a dedicated in-house planning staff. The enlarged planning department’s responsibilities should include working with municipalities and other partners to install catenary wires and other infrastructure needed for commuter rail electrification, together with other aspects of rail transformation such as raised platforms at all stations. In addition, the expanded planning staff should be responsible for incorporating national and international best practices into the designs of facilities and revised operating procedures.
We need to seriously consider whether, in 2023, it makes sense to continue investing in fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure, when proven sustainable alternatives exist. While the MBTA has so far been slow to adopt these alternatives, these four investments are a massive opportunity to create a truly modern transit system, and to continue the state’s long history of making meaningful progress by tackling challenges head-on.
Chinmai Deo is a transit associate at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Johannes Epke is a staff attorney at Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts. John MacDougall is co-chair of the transportation working group of 350 Massachusetts. Mela Bush Miles is transit oriented development director at Alternatives for Community and Environment.