Let the MBTA plan its own future

Long-term infrastructure projects need better coordination

LAST JUNE, at its last meeting, a bold vision for the future MBTA was laid out by the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB). The plan entitled “FMCB Productivity Report” leverages infrastructure investments to create a safer, more efficient, more modern, more frequent, and ultimately less labor-intensive MBTA system. But, this plan, and indeed an overall vision for the T has been stuck, and one of the main reasons why is the lack of a planning department at the MBTA. 

Currently, MBTA long-term planning is the responsibility of the Office of Transportation Planning at MassDOT, a 2004 creation of the Legislature. That means the MBTA remains responsible for funding much of its own long-term projects, but not the planning of these projects. As the MBTA and Commonwealth prepare to receive billions in new infrastructure funding, now is the time to correct this historical error, and put the T back in control of its future. 

The FMCB’s vision, in summary, sees a public transportation system operating in and around the region based on five major investment programs:

  • Subway Automation: Driverless Red, Orange, and Blue line trains via modern signal systems, new cars, and upgraded stations.
  • Fare Transformation: Expanded and modernized automated fare collection facilitating all-door boarding on buses, the Green Line, the Mattapan High Speed Rail Line, and the new regional rail system, plus improved discount programs for all modes.
  • Regional Rail: Conversion of diesel-propelled locomotives pulling rail coaches principally to/from Boston for commuters, to self-propelled, electrical-powered transit vehicles (known as EMUs) operating frequently throughout the day, allowing inter-regional trips from upgraded, ADA-compliant stations with high-platforms via all-door boarding. 
  • Bus Transformation: Transition to emission-free buses, operating with greater frequency on high-demand corridors with upgraded signals giving buses priority, operated and maintained from state-of-the-art bus maintenance/charging facilities.
  • Light Rail Improvement: Transition to larger, more efficient Green Line Type 10 supercars, capable of carrying the same number of passengers in one car, as are currently carried in two. Transfer of current Green Line Type 9 (commissioned 2018-2020) cars to the Mattapan High Speed Rail Line replacing current World War II-era trolleys. Upgraded, ADA-compliant stations facilitating all-door boarding, dispatched from modern, upgraded maintenance facilities. 

In addition to the highlighted initiatives above, there are also important partnership-based programs that the FMCB also believes are important for a modern urban transportation system. Utility companies, for instance, will likely need to upgrade the regional electrical grid to support hundreds of new EMUs, more than 1,000 electricity-powered buses, plus more Red, Orange, Green, and Blue line cars all operating simultaneously across the region.

The Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services will need to coordinate with the T on any mean-tested fare programs that are ultimately implemented, and hopefully help pay for it. The many cities and towns that host MBTA facilities and vehicles must continue their partnerships with the transit agency, to coordinate on new enforcement strategies and tactics for transit-only travel lanes, and smartly develop land around regional rail stations in partnership. 

Achieving the vision and benefits that come with this – cleaner air, reduced congestion, economic opportunity, and more – is and will continue to be expensive. Regardless of the cost, stagnation is not an option. 

We need a robust public transportation system and network for our area’s future. Implementing such a vision and coordinating its many moving parts, not to mention navigating the multitude of federal, state, and local permits, forms, and regulations, is a herculean task. Good project management starts with good planning, and medium-to-long-term planning is something sorely missing at today’s MBTA. An agency as important to the region as the T deserves the opportunity to plan its own, indeed our own, future. 

Brian Kane is executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.