What Can Be Done To Improve The MBTA Right Now? Transportation Experts Weigh In

A Green Line trolley runs down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston this past winter. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A Green Line trolley runs down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston this past winter. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Funding for the MBTA is a long-standing debate in Massachusetts, and calls for something — anything — to be done to make the aged transit system operate more reliably have only intensified in recent days, as the T has struggled mightily amid a series of major snowstorms.

But what could be done — now?

In a board meeting this week, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack indirectly answered that question when she said, "If Warren Buffett showed up and wrote us a $2 billion check, we still would not have any new cars for several years."

Still, some experts believe there are some short-term solutions that could help ease commutes during extreme weather conditions.

Short-Term Solutions For Better Commutes

Former MassDOT Secretary Jim Aloisi says the transit system needs a snow emergency plan to transport people quickly to and from key areas along the transit system in the event the subway system fails again. He calls for targeted workarounds that can be deployed this winter and every winter until the larger transit issues are resolved.

"What we need to do is identify mobility hubs at various points in the urban area in Boston and Cambridge and surrounding places," Aloisi said in a phone interview. "Then identify critical transportation corridors that connect those mobility hubs. And in the cases of snow emergency, plow those on a priority basis, prevent automobiles from traveling on them unless it’s emergency vehicles or fire or police, and buy a fleet of shuttle buses that can then move people from one place to another."

Aloisi also said there needs to be a deep assessment of how MBTA equipment is maintained. Such an audit, he says, would show whether we are: doing everything possible to prepare for harsh weather; if the T needs to buy special snow removal equipment instead of borrowing equipment as the agency has been doing; and if there are best practices from other transit agencies that can be implemented.

Saurabh Amin, an assistant professor at MIT who studies infrastructure and transportation systems, said the MBTA should look to other transit systems in the U.S. and abroad.

"I don't believe that [the] MBTA is the only transit agency which is facing the wrath of the nature," Amin said. "We need to communicate and have operational plans imported from what is working and what is not working and decide for ourselves [a plan] which is specific to Boston."

He points to Chicago, San Francisco and New York as examples, though he says those systems have their problems. Amin said there could also be lessons learned from outside the U.S., from cities like London or Stockholm.

Overall, Amin also believes there needs to be a contingency plan put in place that the MBTA can utilize in the short-term using available resources. His contingency plan focuses on identifying ahead of time key areas or "snow hot spots" in the transit system that often cause commuting problems.

"We need better operational and maintenance plans for the tracks and the switches so we don't wait for the switches to jam in snow and are able to clear these hot spots," Amin said. "We should be able to identify the location of these snow hot spots based on our experience and be able to deploy the maintenance crews to clear these bottlenecks in time."

Admin said this type of operational readiness plan should also be implemented to make sure the third rail, and traction motors and propulsion systems in the trains are ready to handle a storm and be addressed quickly in extreme weather.

There also needs to be a better way to communicate any contingent plan to commuters, Amin said.

"Instead of saying and declaring on the website that tomorrow the MBTA or this service is going to be closed, what if the commuters are actually conveyed more detailed plan about alternative modes of transportation or timings of travel so that they can be better prepared in anticipation of closure," Amin said. "If everyone knows what to expect, if they have better information many of these [problems] will be avoided, especially a sudden surge in demand."

Long-Term Problems That Can't Be Ignored

Even with contingency plans or short-term workarounds, the T's longstanding chronic problems will require long-term sustainable solutions.

"You can't just wave a magic wand and have the T able to withstand a huge onslaught of snow and ice as they have in the course of the last few weeks," said Marc Draisen, the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. "It's taken us years to get into this situation and it's going to take us time to get out of it."

What needs to be done to fix the T comes down to capital investment, according to Draisen. New cars, updated tracks, switching system upgrades, new buses, more yards to keep buses and trains — all are things that can't be ignored, he says. Draisen said any plan to fix the T has to focus on creating long-term consistent funding for the system.

"We've had a long backlog of maintenance on the existing system for many years," Draisen said, referring to the MBTA's annual Capital Investment Program, which is a five-year plan that outlines the system's current infrastructure needs and details planned investments. "We need to gradually build up the funding that's available year by year and start going through that long list of maintenance and improvement requirements."

Perhaps it's time to start treating the public transit system like highways, Aloisi suggests.

"More and more people demand and need public transportation, so if we treat public transportation like we treat highways, roads and bridges and if we provide them with the kind of funding equity that they need and do an accelerated civic repair plan like they did an accelerated bridge program I think that will go a long way to be helpful," Aloisi said.

Aloisi even suggested there may be ways to fund public transit without raising taxes or fares, such as reallocating some highway funds to transit — even if at the short-term expense of highway spending.

In all this, one thing is clear — winter happens in Boston and the problems with the MBTA have to be addressed today and tomorrow.

"Boston will always have harsh winters," Aloisi said. "They may not always be as bad as this one, but that's a fact and that's a reality that none of us can change and with global warming it seems like the harsh winters are harsher, so we need to grapple with this assuming that this is going to be an annual recurring type of weather event."


Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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