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Another summer of discontent for MBTA riders casts a long shadow on downtown Boston’s rebound

Caitlin O'Donnell checked on e-mails from work and T alerts while she commuted on the Orange line.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

There’s one thing you can reliably count on when it comes to the MBTA: Don’t count on it being reliable.

That’s even more on point this summer after the MBTA was forced to pare a big chunk of its schedule because of a dispatcher shortage. It’s reminiscent of 2019, when a derailment on the Red Line damaged a signal system, requiring trains to run at reduced speeds all summer.

It may feel par for the course given our long-troubled transit system, but this time something is different. Massachusetts is emerging from behind the shroud of COVID-19, a health crisis that fundamentally changed the way people think about work. For many, the idea of returning to a regular commute is a fraught one, especially with growing worries about whether the subway system is unreliable and unsafe. That poses a serious threat to downtown Boston, whose vitality hinges on dependable public transportation.

As Suffolk University president Marisa Kelly points out, the city’s economic recovery is at risk every time something goes wrong on the T. Which is every week these days. Kelly has been keeping close tabs on the system, not only because her faculty and 6,800 students use public transit but also because the school’s appeal includes having a campus in a vibrant downtown where people can easily get from point A to point B.


“We were beginning to see businesses in the Financial District bringing employees back three days a week, and it was beginning to bring the downtown back to feel very much more like it did prior to COVID,” she said. “My concern is that those plans will be put on hold, and we will reverse course again. And every time that happens, it’s just a little harder to move us forward to a new normal.”


For employers big and small, frustration is high. How is it that we live in a region that produced not just one, but two COVID vaccines, yet we can’t keep the trains running on time?

At Putnam Investments, where employees have returned to the office three days a week since April, the number one concern has been public transportation, according to chief executive Bob Reynolds. About 70 percent take the MBTA to get to the firm’s Financial District headquarters, and they don’t trust it.

“It’s just not dependable and doesn’t run as frequently as it used to,” Reynolds said. “To me, getting [the MBTA] back up to where it runs on a normal schedule is of the utmost importance . . . it’s made it more challenging for people coming back to work, even though companies like ours do have flexibility.”

Reynolds said the state is in the rare position of being awash in federal money to finally fix the T, which has suffered from decades of underfunding.

“Massachusetts was allocated $8-plus billion for infrastructure and certainly public transportation would fit that description so I think we just need to get it right,” he said.

The latest spate of disruptions has upended commute schedules, producing a region of people running late as they wait longer for trains or miss connections entirely. Some restaurateurs, already short-staffed, have resorted to paying for Uber rides for workers.

“The staff feels it,” said Christopher Glionna, managing partner of The Aquitaine Group in Boston, which owns three restaurants. He estimates that 80 percent of his 120-person staff, from dishwashers to managers, use public transit, with the vast majority taking the Blue Line.


“They have to leave that much earlier,” he said. “It adds that much more stress.”

The T’s troubles are also having an effect at Flour Bakery and the Myers + Chang restaurant, co-owned by Joanne Chang and her husband, Christopher Myers. Their 500 employees are encouraged to take public transit, Chang said. She is a regular subway rider, too, and picks up half of the cost of her staff’s monthly T passes.

“Everyone is adjusting. It’s less convenient for sure,” Chang said. “We’re all realizing people might be a little late.”

Among those legions of commuters who have to make adjustments is Caitlin O’Donnell, an executive assistant and project manager at Northeastern University. The 34-year-old lives in the North End and doesn’t own a car. She used to be able to leave her apartment by 8:30 a.m., hop on the Orange Line at Haymarket Station, and usually be at her desk just before 9 a.m.

With the MBTA operating the Orange Line on a reduced schedule, her commute can take twice as long, or about an hour door-to-door. O’Donnell, who has lived in Boston for nearly a decade, said she has seen little improvement in the transit system during that time, except for the addition of new Orange Line cars. But even those have been temporarily taken away after a battery failure caused the MBTA to pull the new trains off the tracks last week.


“This is real. It all has to do with our livelihood and making sure that we can get to the job that we work hard to have,” O’Donnell said. “It’s an ease that we, frankly, think we should be able to expect, that we can just get to the job as easily and as safely as possible.”

For many, the global pandemic has been life-altering. Yet the T largely remains stuck in the past, figuratively and literally.

We had high hopes that Governor Charlie Baker could use his managerial prowess to turn around the MBTA. His administration has poured billions of dollars into repairing and modernizing the system, but the money clearly hasn’t been enough to make up for years of neglect.

The next governor can’t make the same mistake. This time it has to be different. We can only wait for so long.

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at