MBTA scrambles to fix its aging system as riders, taxpayers grumble

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Gov. Charlie Baker and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials hope an infrastructure acceleration plan will enable Greater Boston’s mass transit system to catch up after years of neglect.

The “T,” as locals call the nation’s oldest mass-transit system, is already embarking on a record five-year, $8 billion capital program that includes replacing 50-year-old trains on its heavy-rail Red and Orange lines, and an overhaul of signaling systems.

Frequent breakdowns and derailments, some involving half-century-old subway cars, have put the T under a white-hot glare from local media; riders are upset as service mishaps paralleled 6% subway and commuter rail fare increases that took effect July 1; business leaders worried about economic disruption; and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh called the state-run authority "not a functional service."

“There’s absolutely no checks and balances right now,” said Walsh, who had asked state officials to delay the fare hikes. “We deserve better and Boston deserves to have a role in the future of the MBTA. Right now we don’t even have a seat on the board.”

Walsh intends to meet with state and T officials in the coming days.

The MBTA has operated under an oversight panel, the Fiscal Management and Control Board, since late in 2015, after a record 110 inches of snow paralyzed parts of the system. The T has been part of the state Department of Transportation since a 2009 reorganization and answers to that board as well.

The oversight board’s next meetings are Monday and Tuesday.

Disruptions have occurred across the system’s mainstream lines — Red, Orange and Blue heavy rail and the multi-branch Green Line light-rail system. The newer-stock Blue Line, which connects downtown with Logan International Airport and points north, had a breakdown days ago that sent scores of Bostonians into searing heat during rush hour.

On June 11, a Red Line train derailed outside the tunnel near the JFK/UMass station in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, disrupting a weekday commute. The collision struck signal stations that control the split of the line into Ashmont and Braintree destinations.

The MBTA is struggling to maintain an expensive legacy system while trying to upgrade it, said Greg Sullivan, research director for Boston-based free market think tank Pioneer Institute.

“They have this parallel challenge of keeping the Red and Orange line trains in a state of good repair until the new system is able to be rolled out,” said Sullivan, a former Massachusetts inspector general. “The Red Line’s the real workhorse of the MBTA and its reliability is one of their big problems.”

Transit is vital as Greater Boston’s economy continues to expand.

Roughly 68% of office space under construction and 45% of housing sits within a five-minute walk of a T subway or commuter rail station, which opens up more possibilities for expansion of transit-oriented development. Local precedents include business-tower agreements with Boston Properties above North Station and Back Bay Station, and development around Kendall Square in Cambridge, home to ever-expanding Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Baker said June 25 his transformation strategy would build on the T’s safety and capital investment programs and could shorten time frames for construction and maintenance projects.

“This acceleration plan will give us tools we need to be more aggressive in our capital investments, but more important, it allows us to treat this situation with the urgency our customers demand,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, who admitted “we can’t rebuild the system overnight.”

Baker’s hurry-up offense includes proactive inspections and maintenance; advanced schedules including weekend shutdowns to expedite work; and a push for new laws to make project delivery more flexible; and additional budget support for staffing.

“The T has had a terrible record of maintaining their equipment and they do a bad job of project management,” Sullivan said.

The MBTA had $5.3 billion in bonds and notes outstanding as of June 30, 2018, according to financial statements.

Baker said a transportation bond bill he intends to file later this year will include proposals to expand design-build project delivery for use on all construction and repair projects, not just those with budgets exceeding $5 million; the use of "A-plus-B" bidding that considers both cost and schedule in contract bids and could drive more competition; and authorizing job-order contracting for capital projects below a $500,000 threshold.

The latter would allow an on-call contractor to cost-effectively and work on multiple, repetitive-type projects such as repairs and maintenance of stations, platforms and facilities.

Baker is also requesting $50 million in operating funds to create a team of MBTA employees and outside experts to focus on project efficiency. This, he said, would provide additional support of inspection and maintenance crews, focusing on the oldest parts of the system.

The $8 billion capital infusion through fiscal 2023 is a record for the MBTA, which in fiscal 2018 spent $875 million in capital funds. While T officials are finalizing fiscal 2019 figures, they project final capital spending for that year to top $1 billion.

The MBTA intends to roll out 152 new Orange Line cars beginning this summer. Early next year, it expects riders to see the first of 252 Red Line cars. Also earmarked is $351 million to completely upgrade the Red and Orange line signal systems.

MBTA officials have also been monitoring resiliency, sea-level rise and climate change. The T two years ago issued the nation’s first tax-exempt sustainability bond and won the Bond Buyer’s Northeast Deal of the Year award.

Baker, a moderate Republican who works with a heavily Democratic legislature, took office in January 2015. The snow crisis immediately consumed him.

The MBTA is not alone. New York and other legacy systems are juggling the dual tasks of upkeep and modernization.

“It’s an old system that’s operating in a tough environment for public transportation,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at Washington think tank Eno Center for Transportation. Lewis cited reduced federal funding and the lack of a national infrastructure policy.

“Places like Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago — large cities with legacy systems, are all struggling with deferred maintenance,” he said. “People are riding trains they rode in the 1970s.”

The MBTA and Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority are the only U.S. transit agencies that operate all five major types of terrestrial mass transit vehicles: light- and heavy rail, regional rail trains, electric trolleybuses and motor buses.

Like New York's, Boston’s system is state-run, a disconnect of sorts for a large city.

“Control is mostly from the state,” Lewis said. Fares account for one-third of the MBTA’s revenues, the remainder coming from the state through a dedicated sales tax and other means. The 175 municipalities within the MBTA’s reach generate but 9%.

“One advantage is that you have a statewide perspective. They’re not as parochial as other systems,” Lewis added. He cited the San Francisco Bay Area, in which 26 independent operators provide transit service across seven counties.

Allocating resources and deferring maintenance inevitably becomes a political exercise, Lewis said. “Priority goes to new projects rather than core maintenance. We’re seeing new commuter rail to New Bedford get priority over fixes for the Red Line.

“And new projects eventually need maintenance,” Lewis added. “Too many people think all you have to do it put in a few bolts once in a while."

State officials broke ground July 2 for the South Coast commuter rail line to connect Fall River and New Bedford with Boston — a political football for nearly 30 years.

According to Pioneer Institute, vehicle maintenance expenses accurately reflect the need for the MBTA’s new initiative.

Pioneer’s MBTAAnalysis.com showed that between 2007 and 2017 the T experienced a nearly 60% rise in overall vehicle maintenance expenses, to $338.6 million. That, said Pioneer, far surpasses the increases in peer systems.

Other challenges for the MBTA include a whistleblower lawsuit and the shaky status of its pension fund.

Ron Nickle, the MBTA’s chief safety from September 2011 until his firing on March 22, alleged in a federal complaint that the MBTA fired him in retaliation for discussing safety problems with the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.

“No cause was given, other than a vague reference to management losing confidence in me and wanting to move in a different direction,” Nickle said in his filing. “I believe I was terminated for investigating and reporting serious safety hazards.”

The MBTA has denied the allegations.

The MBTA Retirement Fund, which for years has fought disclosure efforts by invoking its status as a private trust, has a funding ratio of about only 50%, according to documents available on the fund’s website.

Liabilities for the fund reached $2.9 billion at the end of last year.

The T’s oversight board late last month voted to add the state retirement fund, the Pension Reserves Investment Management Board, as a potential manager of at least part of the pension fund.

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Infrastructure State budgets Transportation industry Charlie Baker Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Massachusetts