The T is failing before our very eyes

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.


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.

  • stargazera5

    Yes, finding, much less reversing, the damage caused by decades of neglect and abandonment by T and DOT leadership who prioritized expansion over maintenance and encouraged this rot is going to take many years. Taking the advice of one who utterly failed in his own responsibility as one of those leaders to reverse this situation seems to violate what Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”

    We don’t need the old, failed, ways of doing things that Aloisi represents.

  • Ken Pruitt

    The real problem is that we’ve allowed the public perception of the T, and government in general, to deteriorate to abysmal levels over the years. Yes, the T needs to be better managed and government in general could be more efficient, I’m strongly in favor of all efforts to improve accountability and efficiency. However, a substantial percentage of Mass. voters believe government agencies are fundamentally broken and should have their budgets cut, not increased. Conservative media like Fox News and the Herald, Howie Carr, etc. have convinced a lot of people that government does nothing but waste, and that we’d literally be better off without the MBTA. Until supposed Democrats like House Speaker Bob DeLeo begin to truly defend and support government and the taxes needed to pay for it, we’ll get nowhere fast. Aloisi and others can create as many lists of new potential revenue sources as they want, but they won’t be implemented until the public mood changes. Baker has the opportunity to change the narrative, like Nixon could with China since he was viewed as a hawk, but Baker has shown zero interest in supporting any tax increases, sticking with conservative anti-tax dogma. The public, meanwhile, is fed a steady drumbeat about “tax relief” and cronyism, high salaries and dysfunction at the T. Why would they support new or higher taxes?

  • Chris

    And we’re spending billions to extend the Green Line to an area already replete with transit? The real goal should have been to connect the Red and Blue Lines. Heaven help the current core subway system if Amazon comes to Suffolk Downs and masses of workers are trying to get to East Boston.

    • Alexander Frieden

      Hardly, the areas in Somerville the GLX is being extended to have bus service stuck in traffic. The CT2 bus for example can take upwards of three hours to go five miles.


        Granted, rail transit along an unimpaired right of way offers the potential for reasonably consistent transit times. Actually functioning, however …


    Aloisi – one of worst MassDOT Secretaries in memory, lasting less than a year under the “in-over-his-head” Governor Patrick. But, just have to wonder, how big is Aloisi’s piece of the pie for all the grandiose transportation ideas he espouses so “freely”. Wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

    • casmatt99

      Do you have any specific critique of the proposals he made or would you rather continue hurling pointless insults at a respected public servant?

      • RJAARC

        “Respected” !!?? Better word is reviled. He alienated people on Beacon Hill and elsewhere, and had a tin ear. He always thought he was the smartest guy in the room. Pure hubris. Are you one of his exiled coat-holders?

        • Alex Jafarzadeh

          So that’s a “no,” then?

  • anon10

    “empower municipalities to impose a carbon impact fee on non-residential parking” — Why does car use by residents magically have no carbon impact?

  • BenSahn

    I was on the Red Line during the Wednesday track and train failure, but at the other end, between Alewife and Park St. It was running only slightly behind schedule and more crowded at that end of the line, but the announcement in the stations was expect significant delays due to a track problem — without indicating where the delays would occur and leading one to believe that the entire Red Line was down. Bad announcements happen all the time on the T and just take some intentionality to prevent — and the T does not seem to even have that intentionality. Same problem earlier this winter when the entire signal system on the Green Line was down. Ugh.

    Yes, the T needs a lot more resources and Gov. Baker needs to make it a higher priority. Stop slow walking it, Governor!

    • Beeker

      The T’s goal is to have up to snuff in 15 years of time which is unacceptable.

  • Aeroguy

    Per Aloisi, the T needs more revenue. OK, let’s accept that premise. Aloisi has six suggestions, none of which is the most obvious method — RAISE FARES.

    That’s strange.

    * Are T fares high relative to other cities? No, they’re low.
    * Is Boston a low cost-of-living area? No, it’s high.
    * Is Boston experiencing an economic downturn? No, it’s booming.

    Aloisi’s thought process is defective.

    Increased fares (user fees) must be part of any increased revenue strategy.

    • Beeker

      First of all, the T is limited to 7% biannually as set by the Legislature when Baker pushed for a 7% annually last year. The problem hits the poor harder to get around and they were squawking at the board meeting (maybe you should attend it yourself to see it). The last time it was raised was in 2016. They are expected to increase it later on this year.
      One of the biggest complaint is the state leaders including Governor Baker, do not use the T to get around which demonstrates their lack of understanding of the issue and problem faced by commuters because they ride around in their cars.

      If you really want to raise the fare, you need to set it up for certain part of the day where most commuters use the T to get to work which is in the morning or evening. Washington DC’s metro does this with a three fare structures (early morning (5-7), late morning (7-9) and normal (9-3) with the same structure for the evenings. It is my hope that the new fare gates will have that ability when it comes on in 2020 just in time for using AP and Google Pay.

      There are lack of work on projects around the T stations and timely notification of the problems when the commuters do not know what’s going on when problem crops up and you can blame Baker for slow walking it.


    $$ isn’t going to help…………There is only so many people you can transport on this system…. You can’t handle 100,000 riders on a sytem that was built for 30,000 with no possible way of making the original downtown system larger…