Baker: Repairs to T must not shut out riders

Walsh and Wu differ in response to guv's approach

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER says the MBTA faces real constraints on how quickly it can repair and upgrade the region’s transit system, but Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu says a historic lack of urgency is to blame for the T’s shoddiness.

“We’ve reached this point of transportation crisis because of a failure to act quickly enough and boldly enough. We have to wake up,” Wu said in an interview Thursday. “The governor is calling it progress when he’s made a plan to reach barely functional service at some point in the future, and is claiming victory that we’re inching in the right direction. But if you ask any daily T rider, service has gotten worse over the last few years.”

Baker said he will speak to officials at the T every day until the Red Line bottleneck caused by a debilitating derailment on Tuesday is fixed, but it is unclear when that will be. Baker, who has claimed the T is “heading in the right direction,” said it would likely take several more days before the T has a timeline.

“I think everybody would like the T to be fixed tomorrow, and we certainly put the resources on the table: the largest four-year investment in history at the T to invest in its infrastructure. But we can’t shut the T down to do the work every day all day because there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it every day,” the governor said after an event at Bunker Hill Community College. “So the work has to be done at night and on weekends, and that means it’s going to take longer. But again, no one would support shutting the thing down for six months or a year to get that work done more quickly even though people would like to see it happen faster.”

The MBTA does not have plans to shut down the troubled stretch of Red Line this weekend to work on the problems there, but it will run a test train through. The 50-year-old derailed train car was removed from the tracks just outside JFK/UMass on Tuesday night, but travelers on the Braintree leg still need to transfer to other trains at JFK.

If Baker and Wu stand on either side of the divide over how to manage rehabilitation of the MBTA, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is somewhere in the middle.

“This is a long game. This is not going to happen overnight. This is going to take several years to be able to make the improvements on the system that needs it, that hasn’t had a major overhaul,” Walsh said in an interview Thursday. “The system needs to work for everyone, and everyone needs to work in a partnership.”

Walsh agrees on the need to ramp up investment as quickly as possible, and said he would support taxes or fees if they are needed. Wu is a more adamant supporter of taxes, backing increases in the gas tax, fees on Uber and Lyft, or a congestion fee, and the two differ on the upcoming fare hikes. Walsh supports the fare hikes because, he said, the system needs more revenue, and Wu thinks the fare hike should be canceled.

“The fare hikes should not happen. It’s pretty clear that we cannot keep asking riders to shoulder the burden when service is potentially not even safe, much less functional,” said Wu, who called the fare hikes “insulting.”

MBTA fares are scheduled to go up July 1, and the T has advertised the changes to riders. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

An at-large councilor, Wu is seen as a potential competitor to Walsh during the next mayoral election in 2021.

Wu was also more willing to criticize the way the T handled the immediate aftermath of the derailment, which involved pulling buses off their normal routes to shuttle Red Line passengers through streets jammed with rush hour traffic.

“The fact that buses were pulled for shuttle service that then crippled our bus service along other routes shows that we need better planning around major incidents,” said Wu, who said there could have been discussions about creating “temporary designated bus lanes” to move transit passengers after the derailment.

Walsh said that depending on the amount of time that Red Line service will be disrupted, he is open to discussion of using dedicated bus lanes – perhaps similar to one already in use in Roslindale – but he didn’t want to criticize how the T handled the situation Tuesday.

“It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback after the derailment. I’m not even sure of the reason for the derailment,” Walsh said. “If we’re able to prevent it in the future then we don’t need to worry about criticism.”

Shortly after Baker took office, state law was changed to bring the MBTA more fully under the governor’s control, at least for a few years. But even as he has assumed that new responsibility and devoted attention to the T, the governor has steadfastly refused entreaties – most recently from the state Democratic party – to become a T passenger himself from time to time.

“When you’re on the T regularly you realize the depth of need and the scale of opportunity that this public transportation system represents,” Wu said. “And if you’re in a car all the time, never seeing first-hand what it’s like station by station, I think it’s difficult to connect with how urgent the needs are.”

Walsh, who said he has ridden the T four or five times since becoming mayor in 2014, doesn’t see it that way.

“The governor riding the T, the mayor riding the T, people riding the T – that’s not necessarily going to improve the service,” Walsh said.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Poftak and other top T officials do regularly ride the T, and are public about being customers of the transit service they oversee. The governor said he has been in regular communication with the T since Tuesday’s incident, but it’s unclear whether he has given any specific directives or remained in listening mode. When the Massachusetts Department of Transportation was working on installing electronic gantries to replace old tollbooths a few years ago, Baker “insisted” on an around-the-clock work schedule to shorten the demolition and construction time, according to Tom Tinlin, who was then the highway administrator.

Baker said that everyone is “frustrated” by the derailment, and there has been widespread agreement to prioritize safety. On Tuesday, Poftak said the governor wants the T to conduct a thorough investigation into the root causes of the crash.

On Thursday, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said all track repair work at the crash site has been completed, and work is ongoing to repair damage to switch and signal systems. This weekend, the T will run test trains through the damaged area, which will determine when Braintree service can resume. While the T has had some trouble converting capital plans and budgets into actual concrete projects over the years, Pesaturo also highlighted the administration’s $2 billion investment in the Red and Orange lines that includes a complete replacement of the train fleet plus upgrades to the track.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Walsh said the derailment came at a bad time, just before the July 1 increase in fares, but he said there may be a silver lining to it.

“The timing was completely terrible,” Walsh said. “But at the end of the day, the timing might have been perfect to really force everyone to really focus on this.”