Giving T credit where credit is due

5 projects could be transformative for riders

THOSE OF US IN THE TRANSIT ADVOCACY community spend a lot of time, and rightfully so, identifying ways that the MBTA can improve its services.  There is much to be done, for example, to close the $7.3 billion state-of-good-repair gap in a reasonably prompt way.  Advocates for transit have a duty to point out areas where improvements can be made, but we also have an obligation to acknowledge good work when it happens.  Those commuters dealing every day with the failure to accelerate closing that good repair gap may not realize it, but the MBTA is making a significant amount of progress on five ongoing projects that promise to improve access and service quality. These projects are essential in their own right, and also point the way to additional investments.

The first is the T’s ongoing procurement of a new fare system to replace the CharlieCard. The new system, known as AFC 2.0, will support contactless payment from fare cards, credit cards, and eventually mobile phones. In addition, the T plans to fully eliminate onboard cash payment for buses and the Green Line. Riders paying cash spend more than 10 times longer boarding than the average rider, and the variance in payment times delays some buses more than others, causing service to “bunch,” thus degrading service frequency and quality. To support cash-paying users, who are disproportionally low-income and minority, the T has pledged to make many more locations available for riders to purchase and add value to fare cards. This will particularly help bus commuters, as riders reliant on bus services have limited access to fare vending machines, which are overwhelmingly located at subway stations.

AFC 2.0 will also include fare readers at all doors on buses and Green Line trains. This system, called all-door boarding, will sharply cut dwell times (the time it takes for passengers to exit and board) at busy stops and stations. Currently, Green Line cars operating on the surface open only one of three possible entry doors, resulting in substantially longer boarding times as passengers que up and get on. At busy stations, especially at rush hour, these waits cut down on frequency and slow down trips. AFC 2.0 should solve these issues, which serve as barriers to better bus and trolley transit service.

While AFC 2.0 will provide clear benefits to bus and Green Line riders, to be fully effective it ought to be the catalyst for other critically needed improvements.  For example, the MBTA should equip commuter rail coaches with card readers, speeding fare payment and eliminating the archaic practice of conductors manually checking tickets. The integration of bus, subway, and rail fare systems, including free subway-to-commuter rail transfers, is an essential component of a regional rail system, and the MBTA should use AFC 2.0 to make this happen.

The second initiative is more institutional, as the T begins to work with municipalities to implement transit signal priority and dedicated bus lanes on busy corridors. Transit signal priority is a technology that enables surface transit vehicles to obtain a green light faster at intersections, prioritizing vehicles with dozens of riders over single-occupant vehicles. Despite historical resistance to this idea at the MBTA and in surrounding municipalities, a new crop of pilot programs is in various phases of design and implementation. Brookline is working to provide priority to B and C trains at intersections, and Boston and Cambridge have ongoing transit signal priority programs for the SL4/5 and 1 buses, respectively. While these pilots are reasonable first steps, much more aggressive implementation is required in order for the region to build a substantially better bus system, with the idea of transit priority considered as the default, not something that requires expensive, time consuming traffic studies.

In addition to priority at intersections, dedicated lanes for bus travel on busy corridors can boost speeds dramatically. There are marked dedicated lanes along Washington Street in the South End for Silver Line service, but they are not enforced and provide little transit benefit for users of the busy Silver Line system. Recently, however, a series of pilots in the region have attempted to demonstrate the efficacy of the concept. TransitMatters members have been instrumental in advocating successfully for an inbound bus lane on the reconstructed North Washington Street Bridge in Boston, allowing the 111 bus to quickly reach the Haymarket terminal. On Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, preliminary designs for an inbound bus lane are being advanced. In Everett, a peak-direction bus lane on upper Broadway expanded from a successful pilot to an ongoing program, and a recent grant from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has funded a study, led by the city of Everett, of potential 24/7 bus lanes on lower Broadway. These pilots promise tangible improvements for riders. If they are successful, they will hopefully encourage a more comprehensive effort by municipalities and the MBTA to add dedicated bus lanes on multi-lane congested corridors, creating a better transit system quickly and cost-affordably.

Perhaps the most anticipated improvement in service to T riders will come from improvements to rolling stock. Red and Orange Line cars have operated enough miles to travel to the moon and back, in some cases multiple times, which contribute to an atrocious lack of reliability – the infamous “disabled train” delays. Mean distance between failure, a measure of how long subway cars travel on average between breakdowns, is less than 40,000 miles for the Red and Orange Lines. Modern subway cars, in operation in New York and other cities, have an average distance between failures literally an order of magnitude higher.

The MBTA’s new cars, on order from a factory in Springfield, promise two key benefits. First, the Red and Orange Lines should begin to experience significantly lower failure rates, at the very least on par with the Blue Line, which had a complete fleet replacement in 2007 and now experiences failures less than half as often. In addition, a second contract executed by the Fiscal Management and Control Board in early 2017 ordered an additional 120 Red Line cars. This expansion of rolling stock, combined with the improved braking performance of the new cars, will allow rush hour frequency to increase to three minutes on the Red Line trunk, a theoretical 50 percent increase in capacity. The Orange Line, which has seen headways degrade due to high failure rates and slower runtimes, will be restored to its circa 2007 headway of 4.5 minutes. Car deliveries will begin in 2018, and following a multi-year program of testing and integration, the Red and Orange Lines are projected to operate exclusively with new rolling stock by 2022.

Finally, the MBTA and MassDOT are working to increase the reach of transit with two ongoing projects – the Silver Line Gateway and Green Line Extension. The Silver Line Gateway consists of a new SL3 service, operating out of the seaport transitway, and continuing through the Ted Williams Tunnel. Rather than loop at the airport terminals like the existing SL1 service, the new route will run directly to the airport Blue Line station, with a free transfer for Blue Line riders. Leaving the airport station, the SL3 will proceed across the Chelsea Street lift bridge and enter a dedicated bus transitway along the Grand Junction right-of-way. The service will run through Chelsea, separated from traffic in a bus-only road, to a terminus at the western end of the city.

This bus service will be the first in Chelsea to have priority over cars, and is projected to handle 8,700 trips per day, a transformative service in a city of 35,000. Given that 15 percent of Chelsea residents (and 30 percent of East Boston residents) lack access to automobiles, this SL3 service will provide substantial social equity as well as mobility benefits. Unfortunately, the project is hampered by the Chelsea Street lift bridge, which can take over 30 minutes to open and close, and must give absolute priority to maritime traffic, potentially delaying service even at the height of rush hour. The MBTA should work with stakeholders to prioritize bus traffic over the bridge, both by investigating dedicated bus lanes and holding boat traffic momentarily when a bus is about to cross the bridge.

Meet the Author

Ted Pyne

Leader of outreach and recruitment efforts to college students, TransitMatters
The final project, the Green Line extension, is a true grade-separated rail transit expansion. The so-called GLX project has struggled with cost and schedule issues (having the dubious distinction of taking more than a decade to build, with design starting in 2007 and a current goal of completion in 2021). Despite these struggles, it promises to be transformative for Cambridge and Somerville. While Somerville has the greatest housing density in the Commonwealth, only 20 percent of its residents are currently in walking distance of a transit station. Once GLX begins revenue service, that number will increase to 80 percent. Ridership projections reflect the project’s enormous utility, with the extension projected to carry nearly one-sixth of the current total Green Line ridership. Fortunately, the MBTA appears to have finally got its arms around this project, and we look forward to the imminent selection of a design/build contractor to get the job done on time and on budget.

While the MBTA continues to struggle with ongoing challenges – lack of good repair, limited reach, and low capacity – existing initiatives in these five key areas show promise to improve and increase service. Advocates and stakeholders should acknowledge the existing progress while pushing for further improvements, especially in rolling stock, dedicated bus lanes, and further strategic system expansion.

Ted Pyne is a member of TransitMatters and leads its outreach and recruitment efforts to college students in Massachusetts.