Time for vision at the MBTA

Time for vision at the MBTA

The T needs to set an ambitious course for the future

GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER said, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” If ever there was an entity in need of some hope, it is the MBTA. Fortunately, this Tuesday evening the MBTA launches an extensive visioning process – Focus40 – to craft a 25-year strategic investment plan to carry the agency to 2040.

Transportation visioning has been on our minds lately, especially after our two organizations – The Alliance for Business Leadership and Transportation for Massachusetts – teamed up this past March at The Alliance’s daylong problem-solving event, ABL Leader Lab, to coordinate a track devoted to transportation issues. Nearly 200 business and civic leaders came together at Leader Lab to tackle big questions, such as the one we posed about transportation:

How does Massachusetts both shore up its current infrastructure and create the modern agencies and systems we need to compete in the 21st century?

Among many ambitious ideas, there was clear consensus around one answer: vision. Almost to a person, the leaders in the room concluded that in order to effect big change we need a big, shared vision.

So in addition to hope, we – the business community, advocates, public officials, taxpayers – must promote a direction and a goal for transportation in the Commonwealth. A vision. Focus40 promises to be a strong first step toward defining that direction and goal.

It’s not easy to focus on the future when the present seems grim. For most of us, we just hope to get to work or school on time. But transportation improvements can take decades, so it’s just not enough to fix the T’s troubles today; we need to be competitive tomorrow. And as we saw at Leader Lab, looking ahead with a sense of hope comes naturally to many of us, even though the daily experience of MBTA users can be dispiriting.

And that’s our strength. Massachusetts is a state of dreamers and doers. We are creating the future in life sciences, materials, design, and culture even as we tackle today’s challenges. Heck, we gave the world the chocolate chip cookie! We’re not done innovating.

Focus40 is kicking off with an open house and a panel discussion, before everyone rolls up their sleeves in the weeks and months ahead for a plethora of meetings, public sessions, and opportunities for input. The folks at the MBTA will receive no shortage of advice as to how best to pull this vision together, but the discussion at ABL Leader Lab yielded some key insights that are worth sharing:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Other public transportation systems are leading the world with incredibly exciting, efficient initiatives, from free transit service in congested downtowns in Denver and Salt Lake City, to gold-standard bus rapid transit systems in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, to a focus on sustainability in Denmark, India, and China. Massachusetts should learn from them, incorporate best practices, and adapt any findings to meet local needs.
  • Use public transportation as a weapon in the fight against climate change. As Massachusetts seeks to reduce our carbon emissions, public transportation must contribute by getting cars off the roads and cutting greenhouse gasses.
  • Embrace technology and innovation. Whether it’s the “Where’s my bus?” app, the hugely popular countdown signs on T platforms, or something new and disruptive that hasn’t been thought of yet, technology and innovation can improve public transportation’s efficiency, and customer satisfaction.
  • Keep equity top of mind. It’s no secret that access to transportation often translates to access to economic opportunity. Investing in underserved communities can spur economic growth, create jobs, and support businesses.
  • Think bigger. Yes, think bigger about what the MBTA can be 25 years from now, but also think bigger than the MBTA. The Commonwealth’s entire transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of a vision – one that includes, but is not limited to, the T. Residents in central and western Massachusetts, the Cape, Islands, South Coast, and Merrimack Valley all have a stake in our transportation future.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, once said, “To the person who does not know where he wants to go, there is no favorable wind.” Massachusetts is approaching a point where we must have the leadership and competitive will to know where we want to go. In other words, we need a vision, and we need hope.

Meet the Author

Jesse Mermell

President, Alliance for Business Leadership
Meet the Author

Josh Ostroff

Guest Contributor, Transportation for Massachusetts
Jesse Mermell is president of The Alliance for Business Leadership. Josh Ostroff is partnerships director at Transportation for Massachusetts. MBTA’s Focus40 public process kicks off at at Northeaster’s Curry Student Center, 360 Huntington Ave, starting at 5PM on May 24, with details here


  • Jerry Burke

    These are great ideas but where is the $$$$$ coming from??

  • Matt Cassie

    We need to evaluate the viability of the Green Line, particularly street level service west of Kenmore. Currently, during rush hour every outbound train is jam packed starting at Park St. Headway between underground stations is too long, and for people trying to board at Copley or Hynes, they often have to wait for several trains to go by before they can find one with enough room to board.

    Then once you get above ground, being forced to wait at every light is a huge waste of time. In my eyes, there are several solutions that can be implemented very soon, provided the necessary preparations are made.

    The first option is to allow 2 trains to pull into all subway stations, not just Park St. at one time. Each platform should be able to accommodate both trains, which would cut down on wait times between stops. More trains could be utilized in the same amount of time, further reducing headway. The other option is to make all trains 3 cars long. There are already plans to expand green lines stops to fit this need, so hopefully that comes to fruition sooner than later.

    Second, give green line trolleys right of way at all street-level intersections. if we can do it with commuter rail trains, why should it be any different with rapid transit? Once Verizon builds out their fiber-optic network, the MBTA and DOT could synchronize the traffic lights along Comm Ave and Beacon St, using real time traffic info to allow trains to pass through unimpeded. This would take lots of getting used to by drivers along these thoroughfares, so it could be implemented as a trial on weekends first, and if it proves useful in cutting down wait times and improves reliability for riders, implement it during rush hour on weekdays.

    I would choose to start taking the T to work again over driving to North Quincy if I knew that the most agonizing and unreliable part of my commute, the green line spur to Park St, would be much quicker and easier than it currently is, and I think many people would follow suit. Parking and driving are a huge hassle in these areas, especially during winter. The negative stigma the green line has is enough to prevent a significant number of the thousands of young adults in this area from using it at all, and instead resort to driving or ride-sharing services. Show them that the green line can be a better, faster, less expensive option and ridership will follow suit. Just make sure to retrofit each car with a scanner at every door to mitigate the prevalent fare evasion problem.

    • John Doe

      “Show them that the green line can be a better, faster, less expensive option and ridership will follow suit.”

      As much as I hate to suggest this, because of how many people it will bother, it’s time for the MBTA to just keep raising the fares on the Green Line and heavy subway until overcrowding ceases. If the system is overcrowded, it shouldn’t be losing so much money as it does. http://www.mbta.com/uploadedfiles/About_the_T/Financials/Stats%20Presentation%209-7-11.pdf

      This document states that the average Green Line rider is paying about 53% of the cost of their trip, but that the cost of a trip in the Green Line is $0.50 BELOW a Charlieticket (although, these numbers are a wee bit outdated, perhaps it’s changed).

      Dramatically cut the student and elderly discount. Both populations are already transit-dependent and even if the fares were three times what they are for them now (a little more than a dollar to get on the T) it would still be much, MUCH cheaper than owning a car. Gas, repairs, the cost of buying the car itself, license, registration, and all the added rent/mortgage/housing prices related to a garage or parking spot, PLUS parking fees that regularly top 5-15 dollars a DAY along the Green Line route is so dramatically higher than a daily round trip is that there really is no excuse. Reducing crowding will encourage ridership and higher ridership will increase cost effectiveness.

      You are, also, 100% spot on about signal priority on the ‘B’ and ‘C’ branches, which are embarrassingly slow. Raise the fares to help cover the cost of signal prioritization and keep them high. The ‘T’, on a per-mile basis, has the highest boardings of any light rail system in the nation, well above what they were when the system was originally built. It’s time that it started to recover some of that extreme demand in the form of profits to reinvest in the system.

      • Matt Cassie

        As identified in other MBTA prepared documents, the problem with losing money isn’t based on fare prices, it’s fare evasion.

        Riders of the green line essentially have the option of whether or not they want to pay. I have friends who use it to commute to work; some of them buy the monthly pass and some don’t. The latter will seek to avoid paying a fare at every chance, mostly limited to surface stops. One friend boards at Washington St on the B line, one of the most busy stops on the line, yet he still is able to get on a train every morning without paying a fare, unless the operator only opens the front door in which case he has to pay, but this is the exception to him, not the usual routine.

        Increasing fares will only increase people’s attempts to avoid paying their fare, so the best way to recoup losses is by erecting fare gates at some of the major surface level hubs, or, as is already planned, putting fare card readers at every door on green line trolleys as well as employees to observe riders entering. For heavy subway, the existing T employees need to actively prevent people piggybacking on others’ fares by being more vigilant. I have seen so many people do this directly in front of T employees and police, and they don’t so much as flinch. What are we even paying them to be there for? It happens so often that they don’t care about it anymore.

        The subsidy that the MBTA provides on a per trip basis for subway service is more than it should be, but it’s a much higher percentage on bus routes, yet no one seems to argue for increasing bus fares more than they already have been. Higher fares aren’t going to solve anything. The new revenue that it generates is barely enough to put a dent in the T’s repair backlog debt, especially since any price increase will also lead to lost ridership.

        “Reducing crowding will encourage ridership and higher ridership will increase cost effectiveness.”

        So you mean to say, reducing crowding, i.e. having less people take the T, will lead to more people taking the T? What?

        The only way to reduce crowding while keeping ridership the same is by adding capacity to each line. The only way to add capacity is by improving the signal and switching systems, and by expanding train length to 3 cars. Raising fares on students and the elderly, populations who don’t have steady income but the same need as anyone else to get around, is not a viable solution. Recouping losses on these groups is immoral, and a sure fire way to anger the universities of Boston, who provide many services to the city.

  • David Oliveira

    Perhaps there is no hope when there is no courage to use the words “resources” or “funding.” Until and unless the business community is willing to provide the leadership and political cover to raise the revenue the T requires, “the vision thing” is just happy talk. The ABC did just this during the peak construction (overrun) years of the BIg Dig, when the project was literally and figuratively at risk of caving in. Unfortunately, even at a time of record low gas prices, there remains no political will to even discuss the idea of a nickle or dime gas tax increase. Yet, if the business community were truly paying attention, they would listen to their workers who rely on the T, or perhaps take one look at DC’s Metro and its pending shutdowns, and realize that we are also near a crisis point. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance has had considerable success in advocating for billions for regional infrastructure in a red state whose capital is far removed. There should be no excuse in Boston for the risk of complete failure in our transportation system. Perhaps we should have more faith in either Google and/or Elon Musk solving our problems that in our political and civic leadership.

  • CircusMcGurkus

    In order to increase ridership – and seek to keep fares reasonable – express buses should run on a schedule comparable to the subway lines from outlying areas that have poor commuter rail service or no service. That is, from Peabody and Salem there should be buses to Revere every 20 minutes or so to connect to the blue line; from Lynnfield and Saugus there should be express buses to Malden and the Orange line, etc. Further more surface transportation and water transportation that is meaningful and not just tourist-oriented (like the ferry from Lynn which just got an infusion of federal money) that link people to where they want to go NOT just at commuter hours but for evening outings and weekend visits to town. LOTS of people clog up the roadways into Boston and Cambridge who are not going in to work but instead do not want to pay $15 roundtrip on an inconvenient train schedule when they can find parking in town for the theater or dinner in town for about the same amount of money or less.
    Buses are cheap to implement and the powers that be can measure usage – with everything zoned all over eastern MA so folks further away can pay a little more but not as much as the commuter rail. This way, the efficacy of expanding the subway lines further or building connecting lines to existing service while modernizing the current old tracks and cars can be measured. Transit and infrastructure are ongoing projects that must reflect the way people live and not the way the MBTA wants to move them about.
    If you want people to take mass transit you have to make it affordable and convenient. This is why everyone in NYC takes the subway – it is hands down the easiest and fastest way to get around. Right now, in Eastern MA, it is cheaper and easier to drive into town (or to park at the closest subway station and ride from there) than it is to take any commuter rail outside of the first few zones. While some 9-5 commuters can benefit, with couples it is universally cheaper to pay for parking in town and drive (though the headache of driving may make mass transit a more pleasant option). When it is less expensive and – despite hassles of traffic – ultimately more convenient – to drive, mass transit suffers. The subway is decent here and there need to be better ways for people within 10 or 15 miles of the closest T line to be able to take mass transit all the way through inexpensively and conveniently at all times of day. That does not exist and should be a focus for surface transit now. In that way folks might take the commuter rail into town and the T and bus home due to scheduling without needing to have a car. With more millennials declining to buy cars and wanting more and better mass transit, this must be a focus for the future of MA.

    • Matt Cassie

      “When it is less expensive and – despite hassles of traffic – ultimately more convenient – to drive, mass transit suffers.”

      This is a great point. A lot of folks will point out that taking the T or commuter rail is far less expensive than owning and driving a car to work, as if that is the source of the revenue problems at the MBTA. Those options NEED to be much cheaper than owning a car, or else who would choose to take public transit rather than their own car if the price is nearly equal? As a mass transit agency, the MBTA is not built to make a profit, but rather to provide an essential service to the public. Of course no one is happy when costs far exceed revenue, but if the MBTA never makes a cent in profit in my lifetime, I’m OK with that. The taxpayers need to understand that the investment in public infrastructure is well worth the tax dollars over the long run. What we cannot afford however, is austerity in that system which creates a monumental backlog in urgent repairs and maintenance. The T desperately needs an infusion of capital from either cost savings or increased funding from the state, in recognition of the urgency there is to bring this system into a state of good repair. As we have seen with the Metro in Washington DC, safety concerns cannot take a backseat to cost concerns.

      The key to making public transit a compelling transportation choice is by giving riders multiple options as far as how they can get from Point A to Point B. I agree about the express bus routes outside of the area that the subway services. Implementing more bus routes in the city limits and just outside will just add to the congestion that clogs the roads as it is.The only way to increase ridership is to allow more people who live outside the geographical limits of the T to easily access the subway routes towards downtown. Commuter rail lines are good for getting downtown, but they do not provide the flexibility that comes with access to the different subway routes in and around Boston.

      The state is in the middle of the Focus 40 initiative, which they describe as “the 25-year strategic vision for MBTA investments”. In 25 years, the young professionals living in the city will be those who are in diapers right now. And you can bet that these people, who will grow up witnessing an ever-accelerating pace of technological innovation, will not want to conform to the traditional transportation paradigms that most of us begrudgingly accept today. We need to prepare for new technologies and trends towards small, electric, autonomous cars; rapid transit to downtown hubs, and demand for instant procurement of goods and services. If our infrastructure does not meet these criteria, we will lose the reputation for innovation that the city is still clinging to, despite the best efforts of those on Beacon Hill.

      • CircusMcGurkus

        Exactly! The MBTA has to learn how to build for tomorrow instead of yesterday. I also 100% agree on the infusion of capital for mass transit and all infrastructure as an ongoing eternal portion of the state budget with long term plans for maintenance and review/revision as well as growth and investment in new technology. Public services cost money so the fact that this agency does not make money is not an issue for me either – what is an issue is the draconian idea that people of Massachusetts should suffer due to poor debt structure of this agency. Projects that benefit the growing population should not be delayed or denied due to past errors of fiscal management for the MBTA.

  • Charlie

    The biggest thing the T could do to improve transit service throughout the region is to convert the commuter rail into rapid urban rail. This would mean getting rid of the loud, polluting, and infrequent diesel trains and replacing them with shorter, quieter, more frequent electric trains. These trains should run every 15 mins (or no more than every 30 mins) every day of the week throughout the day and night. This would allow people who aren’t just 9-5 commuters to use transit on a regular basis. Local bus systems and routes should be updated to coordinate with this train service. There is a huge pent-up demand by people who want to use transit more often, but first it needs to actually be a viable option for them!