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What is the T for, anyway?

The future of our public transit could hinge on tough decisions about what problem the system is mainly meant to solve.

An MBTA commuter rail train stops at the Blue Hill Avenue station on the Fairmount Line in Mattapan.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It took years of tireless advocacy to cajole the state into investing $200 million in the MBTA’s Fairmount Line and to convince the T to increase the frequency of commuter trains on that route, which connects Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park to South Station. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that in 2017, when the state proposed extending the route into the suburbs, advocates were worried that the change could come at the expense of their hard-fought gains.

The Fairmount Line, after all, looks precarious by typical measures. Despite new stations, additional trains, and cuts to fares, the line still has the fewest riders of any of the T’s commuter lines — about 2,600 a day in 2018, a smaller number of people than travel through a few stations on busier commuter rail routes. The T has only 13 tracks at South Station, which limits how many trains the terminal can handle at a time. The case for devoting so many of those slots to the little-used Fairmount Line has always been about what the line could become — a transit artery connecting low-income neighborhoods with job centers — not what it is.

The 2017 proposal entailed extending some of those mostly empty Fairmount trains to an underutilized station at Gillette Stadium. Local officials in Foxborough wanted the trains, and the massive parking lot there would provide a lure to get commuters out of their cars and onto the train. There would be no cut to service for riders whose trips began in Boston.


Still, the response was an outcry. The longer trips, transit activists in Dorchester feared, might mean more opportunities for trains to break down or get delayed before they reached Boston. Because Foxborough would be the origin for inbound trips, the chair of the Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition wrote, “This could potentially result in the terrible situation in which all riders from Foxborough, likely white, will be sitting, [while] riders of the Fairmount Line, more likely people of color, will be standing on the way to South Station.” What the T saw as an inexpensive way to expand service to a new community that wanted it, activists perceived as a shift in the agency’s priorities away from the system’s poorest riders.


The T went ahead with the pilot, which started in 2019. But though the fight may have been quickly forgotten, it was notable for bringing to the surface fundamental questions about the T’s very purpose that rarely get asked, much less answered by the agency or its political overseers. Why, exactly, does the state spend more than $1 billion a year operating buses, ferries, trains — tasks that had largely been left to the private sector until the mid-20th century? What problem or problems do we expect it to solve? Is the T an antipoverty and economic development program to ensure transportation options for those most in need, like the residents of Dorchester and Mattapan — or is it a tool for reducing traffic and mitigating environmental problems?

Before you say it’s both: Well, yeah — that would obviously be great. But as the Fairmount Line activists intuited, there are financial, managerial, and sometimes practical limits on how well the T or any other agency can juggle multiple missions at the same time. And the kind of questions that the Fairmount Line controversy raised will only grow louder and more frequent as the varying demands placed on the T tug in different and ever-more-expensive directions.


Whether it’s acknowledged or not, that tension is already present.

For instance, the T is currently rethinking its bus routes — a process, says the agency, in which it “puts equity first, prioritizing the needs of those who depend on frequent, reliable bus service.” That’s a very different approach to analyzing choices than what Chris Dempsey, a former transit activist now running for state auditor, called for in a recent interview with the Globe editorial board. He faulted the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (which oversees the T) for failing to put “climate front and center in every single decision that they make” and said he’d seek to force them (and other state agencies) to do so if he were elected.

Equity and climate concerns will often coincide. But they won’t always — and they can’t both come first.

For example: With its limited resources, should the T focus on making bus service fare-free? The T’s most conservative estimates suggest that would cost $97 million in its first year and $88 million in subsequent years, and studies suggest it would do little to cut down on pollution from automobiles.

Or should it electrify its commuter rail system to replace fossil-fuel-powered diesel trains — a multibillion-dollar project that would most directly benefit commuter rail riders who zip through those impoverished neighborhoods on their way downtown?


Should it extend commuter rail to places like Manchester, N.H., and Cape Cod, with an eye toward taking cars off the roads? Or should it focus on running more reliable buses in underresourced urban areas like Lynn and Chelsea?

Getting wealthy commuters out of their cars is likely a much bigger win for the environment than making sure that poor city residents have a reliable bus ride to their doctor’s office. Getting someone who drives a car from Foxborough to downtown Boston to switch to a newly available commuter train is going to prevent a lot more emissions than getting a bus rider in Dorchester to take the Fairmount Line train instead.

The T will probably never have a clear single answer on what it’s for. Since public entities took over mass transit systems after World War II, those agencies have responded to shifting and varied political needs rather than focusing on a financial bottom line — or any other individual metric. Even if it were possible to figure out what commuter rail schedule yielded the most emissions reductions, or spread economic opportunity to the most people, how to divide up those 13 tracks at South Station would probably still be a political decision. But it’s at least worth asking: By trying to be all things to all people, is the T simply guaranteeing it’ll continue to be a disappointment to everyone?


Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at