How the nation’s oldest transit authority is investing in tomorrow

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By 2020, more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things. According to the International Data Corporation, spending on smart cities worldwide is projected to reach more than $158 billion in 2022, a 48% increase from 2018. Much of this spending is likely to occur outside North America.

Infrastructure Week in the U.S. has come and gone. Once again, the dialogue focused on our nation’s ailing roads, bridges, utilities and rails. And once again, there was scant mention of the information infrastructure needed to underpin new technology in our cities and towns. By focusing exclusively on the nation’s deferred maintenance backlog, we risk missing a generational opportunity. Simply achieving the Section 5326(b) standard for state of good repair is insufficient. The “smart” communities of tomorrow require information infrastructure be included in our capital investment plans today.

As the oldest mass transit authority in the country, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has a history of innovation, including building the nation’s first underwater subway tunnel in 1904. It also has a substantial deferred maintenance backlog. Estimated at $10 billion, we need to invest across a number of areas: vehicles, stations, track, signals, etc.

Despite the size and urgency of the challenge, we plan to do more than simply repair or replace. We plan to embed information infrastructure wherever possible. At a minimum, information infrastructure will enhance customer experience and generate incremental revenue. If the full potential of our investments is realized, they will have a transformational impact on the communities and customers that we serve through improved reliability, public safety, health, environmental resiliency and sustainability, civic participation and engagement, and mobility.

From bus shelters to billboards to fare gates, we have ambitious plans. Over the next three years, we will double the number of shelters across our 177 bus routes and make significant upgrades to existing stops. Shelters equipped with broadband can promote economic growth by enabling new business opportunities and help close the digital divide in disadvantaged communities.

We have similar aspirations for our aging billboards and plan to install macro cell, small cell and IoT technology across our footprint. In addition to quadrupling billboard revenue over the next 15 years, we will improve connectivity in communities with lower population density and enable emergency public messaging. In stations and on vehicles, we are implementing next-generation fare collection technology through an initiative called Automated Fare Collection (AFC) 2.0, and along the commuter rail right-of-way, we will expand buried fiber optic cable channels.

We’re exploring battery-electric buses, charging stations and modernizing our bus network and facilities. We’re testing smart sensor technology to monitor structural and environmental data including flooding and sea level rise. And with the proliferation of increased data and technology, we’re keenly focused on information security and analytics.

Some will argue that information infrastructure is non-core for a transit agency. We fundamentally disagree. The mission of a transit agency is to connect local populations with education, employment, food, medical care and community. Information infrastructure is critical to achieving this mission. Furthermore, through public-private partnerships, innovative funding mechanisms, and other alternative delivery methods, transit agencies are more capable than ever of pairing these investments with traditional maintenance projects.

For the MBTA and peer agencies, investment in information infrastructure is not a question of mission or means. It is one of motivation and necessity. America needs to keep up.

Paul Brandley is CFO and Treasurer of the MBTA. John Markowitz is Director of Treasury Services.

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