Why the T’s repair backlog bill has grown so rapidly

A worker walked past a Red Line train awaiting repairs at the MBTA maintenance facility in South Boston in April.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A worker walked past a Red Line train awaiting repairs at the MBTA maintenance facility in South Boston in April.

A broken bus here. A clunky train there. Pretty soon it adds up — big time.

The estimated fixup costs for the MBTA system have skyrocketed.

As recently as 2009, the agency estimated its backlog of repairs was $3.1 billion. As of a few weeks ago, it had more than doubled to a startling $7.3 billion, and the T noted that the number is likely not done rising.


So why has the T’s repair bill surged, and why do officials believe the tab will keep growing?

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Part of the reason is fairly straightforward. The system is getting older, requiring more repairs and replacements, and the T has often spent too little on repairs to reduce the backlog.

However, there are other, less-obvious factors: The agency has been adding to its to-do list as the result of an ongoing effort to document everything it owns. And it has sometimes changed the way it crunches the data.

The inventory database

The project of cataloguing the value, condition, age, life expectancy, and repairs needed for every single piece of equipment and property began in 1999. The evolving data is used to generate the repair cost estimate.

“If you could miraculously fix everything today, that’s what it would cost,” said T general manager Frank DePaola. “We’re not letting anything unsafe run in our system. [But] we could have more reliable service if we could reduce that backlog.”


As of 2006, the database contained records for more than 2,400 assets worth $12.4 billion. But the database has grown to list upwards of 230,000 assets, worth $23.8 billion.

Many are entirely new additions to the database, while others are more detailed breakdowns of assets that were already tracked.

For example, instead of just listing a T-owned bridge as a single asset, the agency several years ago began listing components — such as the substructure, superstructure, and deck elements — as separate assets.

The T acknowledges that the database still does not include all the assets the agency owns, particularly components of the commuter rail system.

More items still need to be added, and other items will be broken out into more detail — both of which are likely to cause the T’s repair bill to increase further.

A look at how the T's repair backlog has changed over time
Date Backlog value Assets in database Value of all assets Overall condition of assets (based on 1-5 scale) Need to spend to maintain backlog
Aug 2015 $7.3 billion 230,000 $23.8 billion 3.02 $472 million
Mar 2015 $6.7 billion 146,000 $21.5 billion 3.05 N/A
2009 $3.1 billion 95,000 $11.3 billion 3.07 $694 million
2006 $2.7 billion 2,400 $12.4 billion N/A $470 million
2003 $2.7 billion N/A N/A N/A $450 million
1999 $3.2 billion N/A N/A N/A $505 million
SOURCE: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority



Another reason for the growth in the repair estimate has been that the T hasn’t kept pace with the need for repairs.

Since 1999, the T has regularly estimated it should spend at least $450 million and as much as $694 million to simply maintain its state of repair.

But the T has often failed to meet its repair spending targets.

Since fiscal year 2009, the agency has spent an average of $392.6 million annually on repairs.

For the current fiscal year, which began at the start of July, the T is budgeted to spend $665.7 million on repairs, officials said. But to eliminate the repair backlog, the T estimates it would need to spend an average of $765 million per year for 25 years.

What’s more, the T’s calculations are in today’s dollars and don’t account for inflation, meaning the amount the agency will ultimately pay will be even higher.

New accounting methods

The estimated repair costs listed on the database have also fluctuated because the T has made changes in how it assesses the condition of its assets — or simply taken a second look at them.

For example, the backlog of repairs needed for buses increased from an estimated $101 million several months ago to the current $538 million because the agency revised the formula it uses to try to project how quickly equipment will decay

On the other hand, the T’s estimate for the cost of repairs to subway signal equipment stands at $309 million, which is about $1 billion lower than what the agency estimated several months ago.

The remarkable paper decline occurred because the T did a new review of its subway signal equipment and found much of the equipment to be in better condition than previously thought.

The MBTA's repair backlog tally has changed dramatically since March
The agency's repair backlog database has added thousands of new items and undergone major changes.
Type of asset Backlog value as of August % change in backlog value since March
Revenue vehicles $3,321,196,510 26%
Bridges $260,358,863 -67%
Signals $1,032,839,147 -25%
Stations $391,030,220 53%
Facilities $496,808,627 4%
Track/ROW $1,189,339,256 290%
Power $288,508,404 -38%
Parking $102,323,335 -41%
Communications $35,259,153 1004%
Technology $78,564,313 -40%
Tunnels $93,375,000 289%
Non-revenue vehicles 36,910,500 9%
Fare collection $9,004,519 2019%
Elevators & Escalators $7,620,000 -67%
Total $7,343,137,847 10%
SOURCE: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

A bill that could get even higher

Officials aren’t sure how far beyond $7.3 billion the estimate will go.

“That’s hard to answer, given the size, age, and complexity of the system,” said Thom Dugan, senior director of the agency’s capital budget.

He noted that even when all of the T’s assets are added to the database, there will still be constant updates to account for deterioration, repairs, and the acquisition of new property, in addition to potential changes to how the data is crunched.

“An asset management database is something you never finish,” Dugan said.

Maintaining and updating the database itself isn’t cheap either.

The T between fiscal years 2013 and 2015 spent $113,000 of its own money and another $474,000 in federal dollars to enhance the database.

Not alone

All that said, the MBTA is far from the only transit agency in the country with a big, growing repair backlog.

“We’re an older system, so I think if you went to other older systems like New York City and Chicago, you’d have a similar backlog,” said DePaola.

The Federal Transit Administration’s most recent estimate of the nationwide repair backlog, calculated in 2013, was $85.9 billion, up from $77.7 billion in 2011, a spokesman for the agency said.

In April, the administration’s acting Administrator Therese McMillan testified before Congress that not enough money is being spent nationally to reduce the repair bill or to even hold it steady. She said the backlog is growing at a rate of $2.5 billion annually.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mrochele