Time for radical action at the T

As an example, we should consider making it free

THIS PAST FRIDAY the MBTA had to empty out the station at Central Square in Cambridge because a Red Line car was billowing smoke. The service has experienced fires along the Orange and Green lines in recent months too. That’s not counting numerous derailments, one of which caused more than 100 days of reduced service on the Red Line this summer. We are watching our core public transit service fall apart right in front of us.

It is a problem 100 percent of our own making. We starved the MBTA of needed maintenance funding for decades and neglected to build out the service to match the region’s growing population. It’s left us with a relic rather than an essential service that makes our region work better. It’s supposed to give people a viable way of getting around without a car so that our roads aren’t clogged. Yet in 2019 Greater Boston finds itself with the worst traffic in the nation and regular breakdowns on the MBTA.

For all the penny pinching we did in underfunding the T, what we truly can’t afford is a metro region where nobody can get anywhere. A broken transit system breaks people’s lives, breaks our economy, breaks down the fabric that binds together our cities and towns. It means people can’t get to work and they can’t get home to their families. Everything grinds to a halt.

How is our economy supposed to grow under these conditions? I’m the mayor of the city that now is home to the headquarters of the largest private employer in New England, Partners HealthCare. The company located in Somerville because we had a brand new T station in Assembly Square, making it easy for employees to get to work. Yet now everyone who works there has to factor in that maybe the train is going to be delayed, break down — or catch fire — on any given day.

The MBTA also is building the Green Line extension (GLX) through Somerville. We fought for decades to get rail service returned to the heart of what is the most densely populated city in New England. We’re excited about that. As they put new Green Line cars on the new tracks with the new signals, the Somerville section should work great. Yet we’d like everything else it connects to to work just as well.

We have no shortage of businesses interested in locating here because of our existing and upcoming transit access. When it all comes together, the GLX will pump billions of dollars through the Commonwealth’s economy. However, the core of that plan is getting hollowed out by deficient service. We can’t afford that in the heart of the region that accounts for 80 percent of our state’s economic activity. This is not something we can whistle past and pretend there will be no price to pay.

Then there are the environmental and climate concerns. I mentioned our worst-in-the-nation traffic. It’s not just along the superhighways that were part of the Big Dig. It backs up into cities and towns across  the region. Congestion and gridlock are rampant. Collectively we’re all on the road to nowhere, and it’s spewing carbon into our already chaotic climate. We have to stop living like this or the places where we live today might not be livable for future generations.

Public transit is an essential ingredient to building a more sustainable future. Currently, 83 percent of the cars driving around Somerville didn’t start here and aren’t stopping here. They’re just passing through. By no means are we unique in that. Somewhere along the way we fell into the habit of driving being almost the only way we get around, but we need to get people out of their cars and into cleaner modes of transportation. Commuter rail trains and buses should be electrified. The system should be expanded with numerous connections outside downtown Boston as well as inside of it.

And, if we really care about climate action, we have to consider making the MBTA free. The service should be so good and cost-friendly that you’d be crazy not to use it. We got to our current state of affairs by underperforming on small ideas. The reliability has to improve and we need to raise the revenue for it somewhere other than off the backs of the riders who’ve already paid too much for broken promises.. It’s time we delivered radical improvements rather than unjust fair hikes.

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We also need to recognize price concerns apply to the Commuter Rail as much if not more than core T service. As our regional population has grown by roughly a million over the past four decades, our housing supply has failed to keep pace, pushing up prices in our urban centers, which in turn has pushed lower-income families deeper into the exurbs. The cost of regular travel on the Commuter Rail can run more than $300 per month, which practically forces people into relying on auto transit. We’re isolating poverty, making it nearly impossible for those of lower means to connect to jobs. We need transit to deliver equity along with a stronger economy and healthier climate.

The problems could not be more glaring. The MBTA keeps catching fire. It threatens to light our economy on fire. Meanwhile, our climate is burning with a fever. In turn, this ought to light a fire under every public official in the Greater Boston region. Transit is a pressing local issue for all of us. We get nothing but bad outcomes if we don’t take dramatic action to fix the MBTA and commuter rail. Conversely, we get nothing but good outcomes if we do. It’s easy to forget that when we’re dealing with a perpetually broken system, but it can and must be restored to a transit system worthy of a thriving, major metro area. We need to clear away the smoke and see our way to a better future.