For South Shore commuters, will this be the summer of our discontent?
It may shape up to be that way after a Red Line train derailment on Tuesday. The accident created nightmare commutes for Red Line regulars — in some cases four hours — but terrible Tuesday could be just the beginning of many more delay-plagued days.
The MBTA train smashed into a shed that housed signaling equipment. Notice how officials were quick to show off the damage in photos on Twitter— as if to say, “Yeah, it’s going to take a while to fix this mess.”
The T brass won’t get much sympathy from those of us who rely on the Red Line, myself included. Officials don’t know when service will return to normal and have warned riders to brace for irregular operations and delays in the near term. Some commuter rail passengers may also experience slower service because their trains are making extra stops to accommodate Red Line riders.
This could compel more people to hop into their cars or explore options such as Uber and Lyft. So suddenly this isn’t just a problem for transit customers, but for anyone driving into the city from the south.
We already started to see this happen on Tuesday, when gridlock reigned because news of the derailment came early enough in the morning that a bunch of riders decided to get in a car. (I did, and I was stuck in more than an hour of bumper-to-bumper congestion on Milton and Quincy roads.)
To get a sense of how bad commutes could get for South Shore drivers, I asked Barry Bluestone for some data.
The Northeastern University emeritus professor has compiled statistics from the state showing that drivers going northbound from the Braintree split on Interstate 93 during the morning rush hour travel, on average, at 10.3 miles per hour. (And that’s without an accident or construction.)
Let’s play out what would happen if just 100 more cars got onto that artery during the morning commute into Boston. According to Bluestone’s calculation, the expected average speed would drop to 8.8 miles per hour. That amounts to a 15 percent increase in commute time.
“A bike rider would go twice as fast as the typical commuter on the Southeast Expressway during rush hour,” Bluestone said.
Add bike lanes to the highway? Sounds ridiculous, but that might be faster than fixing the T.
The reality is that billions of dollars are being spent to upgrade our transit systems, but we’re probably years away from feeling any relief. Plus, the booming economy has created a lot more jobs, and with them come more commuters, which might explain how Boston is number one in the country for worst rush hour commutes.
Long-term, only more revenue combined with smart transportation policy can improve our commutes, whether it means a transformative investment in transit or implementing a form of congestion pricing to discourage people from driving during peak travel times.
In the meantime, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re on the verge of a commuter crisis, something we’re reminded of every time there is a T derailment, breakdown, or signal problem. Leaders from Charlie Baker to CEOs need to have a serious conversation about what can be done to provide immediate relief.
Here are some questions to start with: Should more employees work from home? Should more of them shift their start and departure times? How can we encourage more carpooling to make optimum use of HOV lanes?
In the case of the Red Line, riders should continue to have access to commuter rail at JFK/UMass Station and other stops with the flash of their Charlie Cards. (Commuter rail has temporarily added more trains to carry more passengers.)
The T should also consider express bus service from Quincy and Braintree to South Station, or maybe strike a deal with a private operator or Massport, which runs the Logan Express bus from Braintree.
And don’t forget coming by water: There’s already a ferry from Quincy, but could another one be added? Alison Nolan, principal at Boston Harbor Cruises, told me in an e-mail that she’d be willing to explore an interim service from Squantum Point.
John Keenan, a Quincy state senator and Red Line rider, believes the state needs to invest much more in the T. But until that happens, Keenan said, the state must do a better job of handling transit breakdowns. His constituents are facing “three- to four-seat” rides into Boston, referring to the number of times commuters have to transfer until they reach their destination.
“We have to have strong contingency plans in place,” Keenan said.
The lack of a viable backup plan was on full display this week. Fixing the T is going to take a long time, but do commuters have to suffer while they wait?
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.