Everything is riding on the T

Our prosperity is on the line

THE SYSTEM-WIDE MBTA failures during the recent snowstorms should serve as a call to arms for everyone in Massachusetts. Quite literally, our prosperity is on the line. I’m not talking about just the prosperity of metro Boston or the eastern portion of the state. I’m talking about the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The reliable operation of the MBTA is a bread and butter issue for the Bay State. This catastrophic failure of the transportation system in our leading commerce center threatens to undermine our economy.

I’m sure in the coming days and weeks we’ll all see plenty of estimates on how much this burst of winter cost in lost commerce and productivity. Without doubt, those will be alarming figures. The Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses much of eastern Massachusetts, puts out an annual gross metropolitan product of $371 billion a year. When that region grinds to a halt, the losses mount quickly.

Yet this is more than just a local problem. The entire gross state product for Massachusetts is $463 billion. As you can see, Greater Boston represents the lion’s share of economic activity in Massachusetts. The money for schools, healthcare, and roads throughout the state largely comes from the tax base of Greater Boston. If Boston fails to deliver economically, the knock-on effects will be felt in every corner of Massachusetts.

The problem goes well beyond the MBTA’s neglected and aging infrastructure proving itself incapable in the face of a persistent winter. This breakdown sounds a clear warning that the reliability of our economic engine has become suspect. Think about what the MBTA and commuter rail do at the most fundamental level: they connect people to their jobs. One of the major boons of locating your business in Boston is the highly-educated, skilled workforce. The reservoir of talent here is tremendous. Businesses want bright, hard-working people in their employ. Unfortunately, locating near that type of dynamic workforce means little if those bright, hard-working people can’t get to your front door.

I experience the positive side of our transit-oriented economy firsthand on a regular basis. Thanks to the opening of the new Orange Line station in Assembly Square and the pending Green Line extension through the heart of Somerville, the national and international business community is showing significant interest in my community. We offer an attractive lifestyle, a top-notch workforce, and, with new public transit options, we seem an ideal place to do business. Assembly Square has Partners HealthCare, SmartBear, and Legoland flocking to it. We’re playing an ever greater role in the Greater Boston economy, which has seen the gross metropolitan product grow $14.5 percent during the past five years.

Yet this winter calamity for the MBTA almost surely will have a chilling effect. Winter comes every year and businesses will cast a keen eye toward whether our transportation system can operate efficiently during cold and snowy months. What we have right now is not good enough. Also, let’s be honest, MBTA equipment breaks down in all types of weather. Commuters get spammed by MBTA alerts year-round detailing equipment failures and travel delays. The maddening part is the system has been set up to fail. The MBTA needs to be more resilient in order for our business sector to get its job done.

When transit becomes unreliable, it tears at the fabric of our cities. Here’s a simple example, many hardware stores and supermarkets throughout metro Boston had to close shop in the past few days because their workers rely upon the MBTA. In turn that meant people who needed snow shovels or ice melt couldn’t pick up the supplies to combat the storm. During extreme weather is exactly when we need public transportation to step up and shoulder the load our constrained roadways can’t handle.

Credit to Gov. Deval Patrick for recognizing how essential the MBTA is to the general economic vitality of Massachusetts during his two terms in office. Economic expansion in 21st century Greater Boston will be tied to MBTA expansion. Yet it also will be tied to upgrading the service. Plans have been made to replace some of the dysfunctional rolling stock, yet so much more needs to be done. This is a cash-on-the-barrelhead issue. If we don’t learn from this catastrophe and make the needed investments in a dependable transit system, the business community will not take it on faith that Boston can stay open 365 days a year.

The accumulation of cardinal and venal political sins that brought us to this crisis matters far less than our response. It is incumbent upon state and civic leaders to take the necessary steps to restore confidence in metro Boston’s reliability and functionality. This is about as simple an issue as you will ever encounter in the public arena. If we won’t make the necessary investments to keep our economic center viable, then why should the private sector invest its money? No amount of public relations will fix this problem. Ignoring it will only make it worse.

Meet the Author

Joseph Curtatone

President / Former mayor, Northeast Clean Energy Council / Somerville
Winter has come and our state capital has been laid low. If we want to avoid a metaphorical economic winter visited upon all of Massachusetts, we must take the steps to ensure the MBTA retires and replaces all its malfunctioning and obsolete equipment. Our state’s economy stands to break down if it continues to rely upon a decrepit transit system.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.