The T is failing before our very eyes

Transit agency needs substantial new revenue to get the job done

IT WAS déjà vu all over again.

Wednesday’s Red Line meltdown didn’t happen because of harsh winter weather.  Ironically, it happened during a gloriously warm day in February, a day when the one blessing of a failed subway system was that many people could walk to their destinations in relative comfort. This time the culprit wasn’t Mother Nature but an aging, failing infrastructure. The Red Line, the subway line recognized as the central nervous system of the entire inner core transit network, stopped functioning for nearly an entire day.

A collage of images brought the transit failure into wide relief on social media: a smoke filled subway station, riders stranded at stations, standing seven to ten deep at Broadway Station, spilling out into Dorchester Avenue waiting for a bus that was slow and inefficient because it was stuck in traffic. We recall images of the recent past, images that we all vowed should not – would not – recur. But there we were, stuck again, and here we are, waiting impatiently for a transit system that responds to our needs, supports our economy and enhances our quality of life.

Since the 2015 winter meltdown, sincere efforts have been made to improve the system, utilizing the limited revenue resources available to the T. But that has proven inadequate, not because of bad intentions but because the resources are woefully insufficient. We are spending more than ever on the backlog of state-of-good-repair work, but not nearly enough and not quickly enough. What is painfully clear is this: we need to significantly accelerate our state of good repair work. The only way to do that is to generate the additional funding necessary to attract and hire the qualified resources to get the job done on an accelerated schedule.

The T knows how to turn a bad situation around.  They did it with the Green Line extension project – bringing in well-paid and talented resources to push the restart button.  Utilizing a new procurement process and a modified leaner design, the T put the Green Line extension back on track in an expedited and efficient fashion.  This same approach needs to happen with state of good repair work.

This is no time to mince words: the system is failing before our very eyes, and we aren’t moving fast enough to play catch up.  The Red and Orange lines are indisputably in need of new equipment (that is happening), and new track signals and systems. The Green and Silver Lines operate at crush capacity, and both need new equipment. A large portion of the Blue Line shut down during a winter storm this year, proving that it is not resilient to increasingly frequent tidal surges. This is the same line that serves the soon-to-be developed Suffolk Downs site, Logan Airport, and Massachusetts General Hospital.  And commuter rail limps along, providing an essential service that is too often unreliable and largely unresponsive to the real mobility needs of people today.

The T needs substantial net new revenue to get the job done. That new revenue will enable the T to take action to solve resilience issues, improve daily service issues, and expand strategically to meet the needs of a growing economy and population.

Here is my six-point plan to turn this ship around.

First, establish regional equity by allowing municipalities in metro Boston to impose regional fees or taxes dedicated to specific transit projects in their localities. This approach to transit funding takes place across the nation, representing a proven and regionally fair way to make important projects happen. Metro Boston needs this important tool because it needs a highly functioning transit system. According to a recent report by A Better City, Metro Boston offsets its relatively high cost of doing business by offering a high level of productivity and efficiency.  That productivity comes from the density of our transit growth clusters – regional areas that are driving growth, attracting jobs and housing, and generating a disproportionate amount of our gross domestic product. It is vitally important – and long overdue – for us to reform our transportation funding system to enable this regional approach to raising revenue and delivering projects.

Second, empower municipalities to impose a carbon impact fee on non-residential parking, and require them to dedicate the revenue to projects or initiatives that support transit, cycling, and walking. Eligible projects could include, for example, dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority – two important ways to substantially improve the bus transit experience for T riders. Such a carbon impact fee assesses a motor vehicle for its environmental impacts, and directs the money to cleaner modes, a fair bargain that begins to level the modal playing field and provides transit with a new steady and reliable funding source. Municipalities increasingly want to be part of the transit solution, as is evidenced by recent and forthcoming “better bus” pilot programs in Everett, Arlington, Cambridge and Boston.  Let’s give them the tools to succeed.

Third, relieve the T of all its remaining Big Dig and “legacy” debt. The T was saddled with this debt when the Legislature changed the funding paradigm in its “forward funding” initiative some 18 years ago.  The approach was ill advised then, and it has proven to be a constant drag on the T’s fiscal health. Relieving it of this debt will free up significant revenue to hire qualified resources to advance critical repair work.

Fourth, establish volunteer pilot programs for congestion pricing and vehicle miles traveled, or VMT (pricing highway travel by the mile).  Use these pilots to gather data and experience, testing public adoption and revenue potential. This is the future – let’s get it going now. We can reduce traffic congestion if we adopt a smart tolling regime, one that fairly charges motorists for their use of a valuable and limited asset – our highway system. UCLA Professor Michael Manville made the case for this approach during a recent visit to Boston.  If you haven’t listened to his important message about using pricing to reduce congestion, you ought to do so.

Fifth, begin the transition to regional rail in earnest. This means abandoning the current outdated “commuter rail” system and replacing it with a modern electrified system with high platforms at every station – platforms that speed up travel and offer true accessibility for all riders.  Regional rail offers faster, more cost-efficient and frequent travel throughout the day, providing people with what they lack today: viable mobility alternatives to driving.  TransitMatters will be rolling out a comprehensive Regional Rail White Paper next week. Stay tuned.

Sixth, amend the inadequate Transportation Network Company law that imposes a fee on Uber and Lyft rides and uses a portion of the revenue collected to subsidize the failing taxi industry. Smart cities like Chicago impose stand-alone fees on TNCs that are directed exclusively to improving transit. I am not against these new approaches to mobility, but let’s candidly recognize that they have decidedly negative impacts on sustainable mobility by increasing vehicle miles traveled in already congested urban environments, and threatening our ability to maintain an egalitarian transit system by luring wealthier riders away from the T. These companies need to be part of the solution, and one fair way to make that happen is to allow municipalities to assess them for their impacts, and dedicate the revenue to improving the transit system.

Not one of these ideas is cutting edge; many have been in place at other national and global systems for years. We are laggards.

Why?

This remains a fundamental question we all need to reflect on.  Why do we continue to be laggards when it comes to funding a highly functioning transit system?  Why do we accept a level of service unreliability that no first world city and region ought to lay claim to?  Why do we remain silent as we sit for hours in traffic congestion, or on a commuter rail platform, or an idle subway car? Why do we let political leaders off the hook by accepting their inaction or lack of creativity?

Our economy is at risk. Our quality of life is at risk. Our future as a region is at risk. Retrenchment will not bring us a better transit system, nor will patience (which most riders have run out of), or magical thinking.  Only net new revenue, utilized smartly and strategically, will get the job done.

Meet the Author

We have the power to do something about this – if we want to.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.