Massachusetts at a transit and congestion tipping point

Register now

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s plans to shut down major Greater Boston mass-transit stations for accelerated repairs is the latest development in a mushrooming transit and congestion crisis in the commonwealth.

Officials at the "T," as locals call the system, outlined their plans Monday to the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board. The system has experienced a rash of train derailments over the past four months.

Meanwhile, a state Department of Transportation report, “Congestion in the Commonwealth” -- compiled at Baker’s urging -- said the regional congestion crisis has reached a tipping point. MassDOT addressed broad parameters for congestion pricing while tiptoeing lightly on the politically delicate topic and acknowledging its complexities.

Lawmakers expect to debate Gov. Charlie Baker’s wide-ranging $18 billion transportation bond bill in the next session. The bill includes nearly $6 billion for the MBTA and a handful of anti-congestion measures. Congestion runs the gamut from clogged traffic on major and secondary arteries to overcrowding on the T's light-rail Green Line.

T officials expect the acceleration project to cost roughly $28 million, and will target intersections, signing, lighting improvement and track work, and making seven more stations compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The project will include 900 feet of new track for the Red Line's lower level at major merge point Park Street Station, according to MBTA General Manager Steven Poftak.

“That’s 900 feet of feet that’s very difficult to get access to,” Poftak told the oversight board. “The reason why the closures are so extensive, Kendall to Broadway, is to allow us to get the equipment in to do the track upgrades. You simply cannot get the construction equipment, the rails, the ties and the ballast, which is the stone that goes around the tracks … you simply can’t take those down the stairs at Park Street.”

Reactions varied from praise for tackling long-overdue maintenance to skepticism over the MBTA’s ability to do the work capably and on time, to questioning whether the T is essentially severing its own artery by curtailing weekend ridership, notably to its vast college demographic and as holiday shopping season looms.

Also on the MBTA's plate is the revived five-mile Green Line light-rail extension project from Cambridge to Somerville and Medford.

Oversight board Chairman Joseph Aiello warned T officials to keep pace with the latest timetable. Construction costs for the federal-and-state-funded undertaking could swell to $400 million each of the next two years from about $165 million. The commonwealth must complete the project as part of a mitigation settlement with the federal government related to the Big Dig megaproject.

“Count us as very worried,” Aiello told project manager John Dalton. “We’ve got to get this thing right. This has got a lot of eyeballs on it.”

Baker, who revived the project in scaled-down form, has included $595 million for the project in his bond bill.

“We need to convince the legislature that we are deserving of the recommendation that the governor put in his transportation bill,” Aiello said. “It would be really, really damaging to not keep this project on schedule.”

In a bit of good news for the beleaguered MBTA, the first six of 152 new Orange Line train cars hit the tracks on Wednesday. The authority also intends to replace its entire fleet of Red Line cars, with both rollouts under the T's five-year, $8 billion capital program.

Pioneer Institute has called for the MBTA to overhaul its procurement practices, which the Boston think tank labeled clunky.

“The MBTA will need to change the way it does business and the legislature will have to remove unnecessary restrictions if the T is to modernize and consistently provide riders with high-quality service over time,” said Pioneer research director Greg Sullivan, who co-authored “The MBTA’s Capital Spending Crisis,” with Ian Ollis, a visiting research associate in transportation and a former South African parliament member.

The report cited as an example the multiple hoops under the so-called filed sub-bid law that apply to subcontracts worth more than $100,000 that are part of contracts above $10 million. Such rules, Pioneer said, discourage subcontractors from bidding, delay procurement and drive up prices.

The legislature, said Pioneer, should enable the T to use procedures the Federal Transit Administration has identified as a best practice.

Pioneer’s recommendations include hiring additional executive-level project managers to deal with projects in the capital spending plan; contracting out for missing expertise, if necessary; detailing a tracking system for all contracts; and reporting capital spending aligned with Governmental Accounting Standards Board criteria.

MassDOT’s congestion report called for a “more nuanced” understanding of congestion to better approach the problem.

Among its findings is that main roadways are now congested outside of peak periods; that congestion reduces access to jobs; and that even local roads are clogged.

“Studies and experience in the United States and abroad have shown that congestion pricing, properly designed and implemented, can be effective — but it is not a silver bullet solution,” said MassDOT, which added that congestion pricing “could be one tool in the commonwealth’s congestion toolkit.”

New York approved congestion pricing for Manhattan south of 60th Street, scheduled to begin in 2021.

The MassDOT report suggested the creation of new “managed lanes” on one or more highways in greater Boston. Such lanes would be added to roads without taking away existing ones, enabling drivers to operate for free in the existing lanes or paying to use the tolled lane.

“Congestion tolling can work; however, there are also downsides,” he said Pioneer’s Ollis. “Dynamic tolling can create unpredictability in how much a motorist will be paying."

Managed lanes, said Ollis, can encourage people to carpool, take transit or work from home.

"But to make a real dent in congestion traffic, these tolling options need to be combined with practical alternatives, and that means faster and more frequently available transit, or better private options," Ollis said. "Without the availability of viable alternative transportation means, congestion pricing can simply become a tax."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Infrastructure State budgets Transportation industry Charlie Baker Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Massachusetts