Calling out the guardians of the T status quo

It’s time to stop slow-dancing the Red-Blue connector

IT WAS STUNNING and deeply disappointing to read last week that the MBTA’s general manager didn’t see a time horizon earlier than 2030 for the completion of the Red-Blue connector project.  That was tantamount to saying that one of the most cost-effective transit projects on the T’s capital investment plan, a five-year plan outlining investments selected for advancement, is dead.  Do you doubt that?  Let me explain.

Let’s get a few points clear upfront. The Red-Blue connector is the most cost effective project on the capital investment plan.  For under $300 million (that figure comes from a recent state-funded study) the onnector will complete the inner core subway system and connect some of the largest economic growth destinations in the entire state: jobs-rich Kendall Square, Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Eye & Ear, the complex at Government Center, Logan Airport, and Suffolk Downs.

The governor, following the advice of his own Commission of the Future of Transportation, says he wants a transportation policy that’s about moving more people and fewer vehicles. Well you can’t get there unless you provide people transit connectivity.

To understand why, here is an example from real life. If I’m working at a tech innovation company or start-up at Kendall Square, and I need to get on tonight’s Emirates flight to Dubai, I likely won’t take the Red Line four stops to South Station, transfer, and wait for a Silver Line 1 bus that will make three additional stops before taking a circuitous route to the Ted Williams Tunnel.  And I certainly won’t do that during rush hour, when the Ted Williams Tunnel is a congested parking lot. No, I’ll most likely take an Uber to Logan because without a convenient transit connection to the Blue Line, that’s my best choice.

Literally one stop away, that missing Red-Blue connection would get me to Logan cheaply and quickly, avoiding the congestion in the Ted Williams Tunnel.  The MBTA management’s delayed implementation policy (which is the death knell for the project) will push people to add to urban traffic congestion, add to urban greenhouse gas emissions, and add to congestion at the constrained Logan roadway system. Imagine a transit agency with a policy that deliberately pushes people onto ride-hailing vehicles.  That’s exactly what this is.

It boggles the mind, this stubborn resistance by the MBTA to just do its job: provide people with access to destinations.  Instead, leadership doubles down on the kind of thinking that deprives people of the access they need and deserve, the thinking that brought us the worst traffic congestion in America, a failing transit system and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are two more real life examples of how the T’s refusal to advance the Red-Blue connector deprives people of access.

If you are a single mother living in East Boston and are trying to bring your sick child to an appointment at Mass General, your choice is an unaffordable Uber ride or a transit ride that requires you and your child to walk from Bowdoin Station to the MGH campus.  That’s an easy walk on a nice day for those of us who are blessed with fitness. Not so much for the 79-year-old with arthritis, or that single mother with a child. And if it’s raining or snowing out, that walk down a pedestrian-unfriendly sidewalk could literally be a killer. Social equity?  Apparently not a T priority.

If you soon will be living at Suffolk Downs – a site with two Blue Line stations already in place – and want to work at Kendall Square or Harvard Square, you have no transit connection that enables you to use transit conveniently. So you’ll drive, which is no doubt why the developer of Suffolk Downs is insisting on a shocking 6,700 new parking spaces on a site that was promoted as transit-oriented development. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions?  Another low priority for the T.

There you have it: the three pillars of sustainable mobility – economy, equity, and environment – all swept aside by the stubborn resistance to commit to building the Red-Blue connector in the short term. I find it astounding that given the economic, social equity, and environmental benefits of the connector (at least as strong, if not stronger, than South Coast Rail) the T is deliberately, willfully thumbing its nose at its governing board, and at the governor’s clearly stated policy objectives. Either that, or the gubernatorial speechmaking about moving more people and fewer vehicles and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is nothing more than applause-bait rhetoric, and the T is in on the joke. Take your pick. There’s no third choice.  I prefer to think that the governor is sincere in his determination to reduce emissions 100 percent by 2050, which is why I’m puzzled that his transit leaders aren’t taking action to support that goal.

Transit connectivity to support the economy and social justice, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is only part of what’s at stake here. The MBTA must begin work in the near future to repair and reconstruct the aging viaduct at Charles/MGH Station. This work was not included in the Longfellow Bridge reconstruction project. Now it looms as a necessary project that will cause major disruption to Red Line service and to lower Cambridge Street. At the same time, Mass General has announced its plans to develop a major new building fronting on Cambridge Street literally footsteps away from the station. And a long-awaited project to build an underground parking facility serving the now joint MGH/Mass Eye & Ear complex is finally advancing. These projects collectively will remake lower Cambridge Street into the people- and mobility-friendly place it ought to be. The right thing to do is to build the cut and cover Red-Blue connector at the same time.

Sequencing these initiatives strategically is the only way to move forward because no one will want to endlessly keep disrupting and digging up Cambridge Street. And the Red-Blue connector should happen early in the sequencing, as the redundancy it offers will support the degradation of Red Line service during the reconstruction of the viaduct. Thus, when the MBTA general manager says that the Red-Blue connector isn’t on the horizon during the next decade, what he’s really saying is that it won’t be built. He likely won’t admit that, he may not even believe it, but it’s the truth.

That ought to be unacceptable to everyone: the governor who supports sustainability, the city that wants both transit connectivity and appropriate construction sequencing, the business community that wants transit links to jobs and housing and key medical and aviation destinations, and the general public, the people who depend upon a functioning transit system for access to jobs and other key destinations.  And it ought to be important to the MBTA because the connection provides both transit connectivity and redundancy – taking pressure off congested transit nodes like Park Street station.

Lest you think the Red-Blue connector is an initiative of recent vintage, let me remind you that its construction was an assumption of the Big Dig’s environmental impact statement, and was specifically included in the Massachusetts Clean Air Act implementation program – a legally binding commitment.

And this points to an important truism: if you build it, they will come. If you’ve been stuck in a traffic jam in the Ted Williams Tunnel, and wonder what went wrong with the projections of congestion-free flow when the cross harbor roadway capacity was doubled by the Big Dig, look no further. It is due in large part to the state’s deliberate stonewalling of implementing legally binding commitments to build the Red-Blue connector that were to have been enforced by the Department of Environmental Protection.  When cynical transportation agencies, with the complicity of weak environmental agencies, break their commitments to the public, the public suffers the worst congestion in the United States.

Let me be clear: the Red-Blue connector should have been built years ago. This has been a failing of several administrations, including decisions made by the prior administration after I left office. So there’s plenty of blame to go around. We are past the point of pointing fingers.  The time has come to get this project done.

This is not the first or only time the T has been caught turning a blind eye to critical needs, as the independent Safety Review Panel shockingly revealed in its December report.  It’s a disturbing pattern. With both the Red-Blue connector and the safety review, the common thread is a stubborn refusal to own up to the fundamental inadequacy of the operating budget and its impacts on hiring key staff and getting capital dollars spent. Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent move toward changing this pattern is welcome news, although it does not go nearly far enough.

The Fiscal Management Control Board has telegraphed its desire to see the connector built in the short term.  They had to fight to make this happen. That’s why it appears in the capital investment plan – that, plus the unprecedented number of people who logged onto the T’s interactive system to register their support for the project.  Public support for the Red-Blue connector exceeded by more than triple the support for every other initiative on the capital investment plan.  Placing a project in the capital investment plan means it is on a five-year plan, which is why the general manager’s comments pushing it beyond the next decade are so frustrating.  If placement of the project on the capital investment plan was merely an exercise in mollification, it undermines the very document used by the T to showcase investment policy.

Will the control board stand for this blatant insubordination of its policy?  Will anyone inside the T attempt to be responsive to public input?  The “wink and nod” slow dancing of projects like the Red-Blue connector and regional rail and West Station is a dance we are too familiar with.  It’s a well-choreographed dance: pretend progress is being made, feign support for a project, throw up as many roadblocks as possible (“Let’s do another study!”), keep kicking the can until the advocates go away or until circumstances make it impossible to move forward. Those of us who watch this stuff carefully already see it happening.  It’s obvious what’s going on: let’s wait out the control board, the guardians of the status quo tell one another. Then we can get back to business as usual.  Cynical, disrespectful, but effective – unless we call it out and stop it in its tracks.

That attitude is what brought us our transportation crisis. That attitude is what diminishes public confidence that things are really moving in the right direction. That attitude is what drives down ridership, and increases urban traffic congestion and auto emissions by pushing more and more people to Uber and Lyft. It’s an attitude that will be certain to defeat the governor’s stated commitment to achieve 100 percent emissions reduction by 2050, and turns its back on the essential recommendations of the governor’s own Commission on the Future of Transportation.

We have an opportunity – I’d say an obligation – to build the Red-Blue connector in the relatively short term, especially given the opportunities presented by the Charles/MGH Station viaduct and MGH projects. Building the Connector at the same time and sequencing these projects is the only way to be sure they are done and done right.

Last year TransitMatters collected signatures from 1,239 people who demanded action on the Red-Blue connector.  It wasn’t a hard sell — people know innately the importance of this transit connectivity project.  So, too, should T officials, which is why their resistance to moving forward in a timely way is so frustrating, so perplexing, and so unacceptable.

Meet the Author

We have to do better.  We can’t countenance the continued lack of a clear commitment to build this project before the end of this decade, and no later. This is serious business, and times have changed.  Slow walking critical projects like this won’t be accepted any longer by an advocacy community and a general population that is paying close attention and ready to take action.  I call on the general manager to reconsider his position, revise his implementation plan in order to comply with gubernatorial and control board policy, and commit to begin construction on the connector within the next five years.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a member of the TransitMatters Board.