A guide for getting through the MBTA shutdowns

How did we get here, and how do we survive it?

WELL, THAT was the week that was.

No, we aren’t referring to the 1960s irreverent TV satirical review of the news.  We’re talking about the week when MBTA leaders decided to shut down there transit system’s second busiest subway line in order to undertake an accelerated 30-day repair program, the week when the T also decided to shut down the Green Line north of Government Center.  The cumulative effect of these shutdowns will be to transform North Station into a transit dead end, lacking connectivity for commuter rail riders coming into the city, and unreachable by transit for riders seeking to head north on rail.

These drastic shutdowns are the culmination of a cascading series of mishaps that have caused significant harm to T riders and led to one fatality and a dramatic subway car evacuation that became a case study in what happens when old equipment, poorly maintained systems, inadequate employee training, and panicked riders converge to create a scary situation that quickly turned into a dangerous one.

We do not believe that anyone working at the T takes a cavalier attitude toward safety.  The vast majority of those working for the T are hardworking, caring, and diligent individuals whose work is too often hampered by inadequate resources, interference from gubernatorial staff, and a failure to come to the bargaining table with labor partners to revisit an agreement that makes it harder to attract and retain new hires.  We’ve seen each of these issues play out in recent months as the Federal Transit Administration’s extraordinary intervention to conduct a safety inspection review has exposed the soft underbelly of what’s holding the T back from performing at a high level of service quality.

How did we get to this state of affairs at the T? A governor famously data driven failed to see beyond the metrics.  We don’t disregard the usefulness of data, but we resist the temptation to be so beguiled by them that we lose sight of the human component of transit. Yes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, but what if you are measuring the wrong things?

The Legislature shares responsibility for this, a Legislature that consistently fails to rise to the occasion, takes action only in times of crisis, and fails to take the action necessary to solve, for once and for all, the MBTA’s chronic operating budget shortfalls and the looming capital budget shortfall.  Those problems persist and will continue unless the Legislature acts to provide the T with a new, stable, and permanent source of revenue (and no, the Fair Share Amendment alone will not be the solution).

Legislators who call one day for a MassDOT takeover of the T, and then weeks later call for a Federal Transit Administration takeover (something that’s never happened in the history of the FTA, and won’t happen now), are substituting rhetorical spit balling for meaningful policy. It’s simply not helpful, and ultimately it is damaging to the kind of thoughtful discourse we ought to be having about two critical topics: MBTA funding and MBTA governance.

The Legislature does need to play an important role in the recovery of the T, and we think that role is easily explained: first, establish secure, stable, dedicated sources of funding for future T operating budgets (to replace unstable, declining, and inequitable fare revenues) and for future capital needs; and second, restructure the T governance framework to reduce gubernatorial power and add more municipal voices to the board. It has become unambiguously clear that the top-down gubernatorial direction of the T does not work – it hasn’t worked since Mike Dukakis was governor. The Legislature should enact a new governance structure that a new governor in January can work with, in true collaboration with municipal partners and stakeholders.

For now, our focus is on mitigation of the harm that these shutdowns will cause to T riders, and indeed to everyone in metro Boston, whether you take the T or not. It would have been much better had the T been planning for these shutdowns as early as this May, for implementation in July.  Doing it now, in an apparently rushed attempt to turn things around, without the kind of planning that would be consistent with a 30-day shutdown, and extending the shutdown beyond Labor Day, is severely problematic.

The delays and test train derailments that plagued a recent two-week shutdown of portions of the Blue Line provide a disquieting example of what happens when a combination of contractor failure and poor MBTA oversight lead to safety issues and more delays for riders. Respect for T riders means giving them more notice to make arrangements and giving municipal partners more time to plan to support mitigation efforts. As always, the harms of these disruptions will fall most heavily on the disadvantaged, those Greater Boston residents who don’t have access to a vehicle, and those who are unable to work from home. No amount of mitigation with substitute bus service will compensate these riders fully for the disruption this will cause in their lives.

Fortunately, Boston is led by a mayor who takes transit, places equity at the center of her policy values, and understands the importance of mitigating the damage that will be caused by these shutdowns. It will be a herculean task because the shutdowns will require providing transit riders decent alternative access to jobs, healthcare, schools, and other destinations while at the same time keeping the city running for everyone else.  It will be a delicate and complicated balancing act, and everyone – T riders, drivers, traffic enforcement officials, cyclists, all need to cooperate in an effort to make the mitigation work at a high level of quality and safety. It will be daunting but it is something we have to do, and do together.

For its part, the MBTA needs to provide sufficient substitute bus equipment to move subway riders to key destination points.  The T also needs to center equity at the core of this effort, and one of the best ways to do that will be to make the system fare free for all riders impacted by the shutdowns.  That means more than fare free bustitution. It also means opening the fare gates for fare-free connections at Downtown Crossing and other points of connection to the subway network. It also means a communications plan that is robust, highly legible, and transparent — and directed to both T riders and non-T riders who will need to respect and accommodate enforced bus lanes and other diversions during the shutdown.

The imminent Orange and Green Line shutdowns could be worth the pain if, and only if, the MBTA is able to show measurable results that riders experience when they return. This will require significantly more transparency and clarity about the work being performed and the anticipated outcomes. TransitMatters has given them a head start, with our slow zone tracker. Riders deserve a clear answer to when the morass at the T will end. Drastic action like these major repair surges can help address the state of good repair backlog, but only if the T can finish the work on time, give riders more notice, and clearly communicate how this work is moving us towards the long-promised “Better T.”

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board and Jarred Johnson is the chief operating officer of TransitMatters.