What can be done to fix Boston’s MBTA ‘train wreck’?

subway trains at sunset
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

With derailments, train fires and an unprecedented safety investigation by the Federal Transit Administration, the MBTA in Boston is exhibit A when it comes to the nation’s problematic relationship with public transportation systems.

Northeastern University experts blame years of disinvestment in buses, subways and commuter rails on the political view that public transportation is akin to a welfare entitlement and not a fundamental public good like highways and schools.

It wasn’t always that way. The wealthy used to compete for service. Now the T’s most famous regular rider—former Gov. Michael Dukakis, Northeastern professor emeritus—says it’s critically important to get back on track for the sake of the environment and the economy.

“We never had the maintenance problems we’re seeing now,” says Dukakis, who regularly took the T to work as governor in the 1970s. “They certainly didn’t decide to close the system down when kids were going back to school and people were going back to work.”

Several route closures are taking place over the next few weeks, including a shutdown of the new Green Line from Aug. 22 to Sept. 18 and the Orange Line from Aug. 19 to Sept. 19—the longest closure in the MBTA’s history, according to NBC and other media outlets.

For observers, analysts and riders, the MBTA system currently resembles a train wreck, literally and figuratively. 

“It’s really sad, actually,” Daniel Aldrich, a political science and public policy professor at Northeastern University in Boston, says about the condition of the MBTA and public transit in the U.S.

Public transit has not been high on the radar of politicians, he says. 

“We have not seen public transportation as a priority, unlike Canada. It’s the last thing we think about.”

The dismal state of affairs has come about because public transit has become an afterthought when it comes to the national transportation system,  Aldrich says.

“I think most decision makers in North America envision public transit as some sort of service for the poor,” he says.

It’s welfare or a handout, Aldrich says, adding that “highways are seen, in contrast, as being for the middle class and every American.”

“I’d say the number one reason that Boston public transportation gets little respect is due to the fact that many influencers—the wealthy and privileged—generally don’t use public transportation, unlike other urban areas such as D.C.,” says Sara Wadia-Fascetti, vice provost for the Ph.D Network at Northeastern University.

The Pew Research Center says individuals who are lower income, Black, Hispanic, immigrants or under age 50 are especially likely to use public transit on a regular basis.

For public transit systems to work, they need to seamlessly blend together different transportation modes, including bicycle parking spaces at bus stops and rail service to airports, Aldrich says.

“The crappier the services, the less people want to ride,” Aldrich says. “Then there’s less money for maintenance and upkeep. It’s a really bad vicious cycle.”

People who can afford it are likely to give up and turn instead to their cars, taxis or rideshares, he says.

Wadia-Fascetti’s family member is a case in point. The weekend closures of the Sumner Tunnel inspired him to give public transportation a whirl after flying into Logan last weekend, she says.

His plan was to take a shuttle bus to the Blue Line into Boston, says Wadia-Fascetti, who as a professor in Northeastern’s civil and environmental engineering department helped lead initiatives resulting in advanced technologies and systems to inspect and maintain transportation networks.

Rail service—an integral part of a seamless transportation system—extends to Gatwick and Heathrow Airports outside London, to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Vancouver International Airport and as of 2015, Toronto International Airport. But not to Logan International Airport in Boston.

Her family member was unable to succeed with his plan, Wadia-Fascetti says. “He gave up and called an Uber and then sat in tunnel traffic.”

Ever since the Eisenhower administration proposed financing the interstate highway system through a federal bond issue, highways have been the big transportation winner on the national level.

“It’s the car culture. We strongly subsidized freeways in the 1950s and 60s to get people out to the suburbs,” Aldrich says.

The inner city and its transportation needs became synonymous with poverty. It is cities that end up “massively subsidizing” buses, subways and commuter trains, Aldrich says, a situation that pits municipal dollars for transportation against funds for education.

“This is always the fight,” he says.

Even so, Dukakis, a former presidential candidate who taught political science at Northeastern University, says he finds the MBTA’s current situation “baffling.”

“Why the service has deteriorated so badly, particularly over these past few years, is a mystery to me,” he says.

Dukakis says when the MBTA extended the Red Line from downtown Cambridge to Alewife during his administration. “We did it on time. We did it on budget,” he says.

“This is all about the people you pick to run things,” he says, giving as examples his transportation secretary Frederick “Fred” Salvucci and the MBTA’s construction director, Francis “Frank” Keville, a graduate of Northeastern University who died in 1988.

“The team they put together just did great work,” Dukakis says.

For his part, Gov. Charlie Baker told the press this spring that the MBTA has been “wildly underinvested” for “a very long time” and that his administration has spent billions of dollars on capital improvements and maintenance.

“I would argue we’ve been playing catch-up since we took office on the T,” Baker said, according to media reports that said he welcomed the FTA’s safety investigation of the MBTA.

There is evidence that before car ownership became widespread, public transportation stops were coveted by wealthy individuals as well as those less well off.

Wadia-Fascetti says she decided to do some digging about why her town of Winchester has two stops on the Lowell commuter rail less than a mile apart.

The Wedgemere Station was built in the 1850s and rebuilt in 1957 despite the fact there was a  second new station near the town center about half a mile away, she says.

In 1952—while plans for the upgrade were in the works— Massachusetts Department of Public Works commissioner John Volpe, who later became governor, moved within blocks of the Wedgemere Station, Wadia-Fascetti said in an email.

“Coincidence? I think not!” she says.

In the future, prioritizing public transportation could include shutting down streets to vehicular traffic, creating bus-only lanes and providing reliable wifi on buses, subways and trains, Aldrich says.

He says Americans probably won’t follow the example of Japan, where car purchasers have to prove they own or lease a parking spot in order to complete a vehicle purchase. But U.S. cities could follow the example of Manhattan, which charges drivers a city entry fee, Aldrich says. 

“I’d be thrilled personally,” he says.

Dukakis says while progress is slowly being made on extending rail service to southeastern Massachusetts, a major disconnect in the regional rail system—the gap between South and North stations—still needs to be addressed.

“It will take thousands of cars off the road,” he says.

The planned closure of the Sumner Tunnel from May to September next year will shine a light on the importance of public transportation alternatives to car travel, Wadia-Fascetti says.

“Can we use public transportation strategically [by increasing or modifying routes and services] to anticipate these future problems?” she asks. “How can we position public transportation as the savior?”

“If that can happen, there may be a different view from the influencers,” Wadia-Fascetti says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.