On mass transit, Baker’s promises and commuters’ experiences often diverge
Cloie Andrysiak has heard all the ways Governor Charlie Baker has promised to fix her commute.
New subway cars and new signaling systems should make Red Line service noticeably more frequent and the trains less crowded — by 2025. And yet, when Andrysiak finds herself packed elbow-to-backpack with other commuters and the train stops unexpectedly, that not-so-distant date has little meaning.
“It just seems to be getting worse and worse every year,” said Andrysiak, of Watertown. “The people who ride the T every day hear the words but don’t see anything happening.”
Baker’s oversight of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority — focused on tighter management and key infrastructure improvements — is a major part of the record the Republican will put before the voters in November. It’s also a point of contention, animated by the contrast between his promises of a better tomorrow and the frustrating commutes of today.
Moreover, Baker’s longstanding belief that the MBTA doesn’t need new revenue is increasingly under question by business groups that are typically supportive of his agenda.
His administration has launched major spending initiatives to modernize much of the century-old transit system, particularly by replacing aging tracks and signals that are major causes of delays. But some of the most crucial improvements won’t be felt for years.
“I think that people are hopeful when they see the photos or TV shots of new Red and Orange Line cars,” said Chris Dempsey of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts. “But in the moment, when you’re late for work, I think that frustration is as real and as high as it’s ever been.”
Nearly four years after the epic shutdowns of the winter of 2015, riders on the Red and Orange lines still routinely cannot squeeze onto overcrowded trains during rush hour, MBTA buses run late in the worsening traffic around Boston, and many transit stations suffering from poor conditions are years from being fixed up.
Eliminating the system’s entire backlog of repairs, officials say, will take 15 years.
MBTA surveys show that, overall, riders give their commutes 3.2 stars out of 5 — the same grade as when the T first started publishing such results, in early 2016.
The Democratic challenger in the gubernatorial race, Jay Gonzalez, has highlighted the contrast between Baker’s plans and riders’ experiences, arguing that the MBTA needs vast sums of new tax revenue and a greater sense of urgency.
But Baker is sticking to his long view: that the sweeping improvements he has been pursuing will ultimately bear fruit.
“Believe me,” he said, “I spend enough time looking at a lot of the stuff that gets directed at the T, and our administration, and others on social media, to know that there is a lot of unhappiness around this stuff. And that’s part of why we’ve been so focused on an investment strategy that’s designed to deal with these issues.”
Fixing the T was hardly on Baker’s radar during his 2014 campaign; it didn’t rate a single mention in three debates, on his campaign website, or in his inaugural address.
Back then, his most pronounced position on transportation was supporting a ballot initiative to end automatic gasoline tax increases — money that would help fund transit operations. Voters chose to repeal the automatic increases on the same night that Baker won.
Then, just weeks into his tenure, Baker was forced to confront a transit system collapsing under the weight of historic snowfalls that exposed decades of poor maintenance. He appointed an emergency governing board to ride herd, with the seemingly paradoxical goals of reducing spending and improving service. But with gas tax increases no longer available to provide revenue, Baker’s idea was to find savings in the T’s daily operations — at times rattling labor unions — and to plow the money back into system improvements.
There hasn’t been a days-long catastrophe since the 2015 blizzards, but there have been notable breakdowns that have disrupted entire rush-hour commutes, again exposing the frailties of an aging system.
Baker’s administration has focused largely on fixing the unseen side of transit: tracks, signals, and power systems. His people have also put big plans in motion to improve buses, modernize fare collections, and prepare for the next round of new subway cars.
Baker has emphasized solving current problems over major expansions of service. Even here, though, the exceptions offer a window into his fix-it approach. When the Green Line extension went massively over budget, his administration fired the contractors, redesigned the project, and relaunched it, more affordably. And the administration plans to get a version of the South Coast commuter rail expansion running years sooner than expected, using a slower, interim route through Middleborough.
Some lofty ideas have worked their way into consideration — more frequent commuter rail service, for example — but they are wrapped up in long-term studies and would probably take years to come to fruition. Even small fixes to immediately improve service, such as letting the Silver Line use a short cut in Boston’s Seaport District, have been held up in long reviews by agencies controlled by Baker.
The governor’s approach is characteristically wonky — “boring,” as Baker himself has acknowledged. Still, he’s not above showing off new things, such as with photo opps featuring new Orange and Red Line cars. Those, by the way, were originally ordered by his predecessor, Deval Patrick, a Democrat, though Baker’s team increased the number in 2016.
There is big money committed to all of this work: $8 billion in federal and state funds over the next five years to upgrade the MBTA’s infrastructure. By 2022, annual repair spending is projected to reach $1.4 billion, far more than in any previous administration.
“When people say, ‘We need more money,’ that is more money,” said Tom Tinlin, a registered Democrat and Baker supporter who previously held high-level transportation jobs for both Baker and Patrick. “That’s more money than has ever been spent in the system before.”
Baker also argues that his approach should help with the region’s other transportation nightmare: traffic. A better-functioning MBTA, he reasons, could entice weary drivers out of their cars and onto mass transit.
“If you want more people to ride public transportation, you have to give them a reliable and dependable product,” he said.
But that approach has its critics.
Peter Furth, a civil engineering professor at Northeastern University, said the nuts-and-bolts approach may help contain costs and improve service, but he argued that Greater Boston has clearly outgrown the current transit system.
“A management and budgeting process whose ambition goes no further than to get everything working well does not serve our metropolitan area’s needs,” Furth said.
Gonzalez, a former Patrick administration official, has promised to tax colleges and millionaires to hasten repairs and more aggressively expand the system if he is elected governor.
“This is an emergency with respect to the T, and we need to treat it that way,” said Gonzalez, who has challenged Baker to ride the MBTA. “Harder things have gotten done in this country and this state.”
However, Gonzalez said, he would need to study various projects before settling on priorities and providing estimates of when he would have the system fixed.
The next governor will face other big MBTA decisions, such as issuing the next contract for a commuter rail operator when the current one expires in 2022. The Baker administration is considering replacing the eight-year term with one lasting 20 or more years. It would use incentives and penalties to steer the contractor toward investing in the system.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, has pledged to fire the current operator, Keolis, and have the MBTA run the system itself.
Transit experts say there’s no one acceptable timeline for large-scale transit improvements. Some systems in other cities make quick repairs by shutting down entire sections for prolonged periods. The New York City subway system will soon shut down the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn for more than a year for tunnel repairs. The plan to fix the entire system would take a decade.
Other systems may decide it’s more important to keep service mostly open, shutting down on certain nights and weekends, but that typically draws out the work, said David Carol, chief operating officer of the American Public Transportation Association.
“That’s the balance all transit systems have to face,” he said. “It will take much longer and be a more gradual approach, or we can shut it down and get it done quicker.”
However, Carol said, transit authorities can speed up improvements if they have more money, because they can do more projects simultaneously.
Baker promised that if the MBTA can’t afford all of his administration’s spending plans, he’ll find the money somewhere.
But he has long said the state does not need to raise taxes for transit, arguing there are other paths to revenue. For example, improving service, he said, could increase ridership — and fare revenue.
Yet even some business groups say the T needs much more new money, arguing that the system can’t keep up with a growing economy on its own. James Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said Baker has done a good job of fixing the T, but his approach goes only so far.
“I would maintain that if the public transit system were perfectly operated, you’d still need more money” for expansion and repairs, Rooney said.
Democratic Representative William Straus, House chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, said he expects more political support in 2019 for increased funding.
“The neglect at the T has been an embarrassing, bipartisan effort over many, many years,” Straus said. “When the day arrives that people say, ‘Hey, we are proud of the MBTA and its performance,’ it will be because not only has management improved, but we’ve spent more money.”
Still, the T has some improvements Baker can crow about: The subway has operated better over the past few winters since his administration purchased new track and snow-removal equipment; the T has also worked with several municipalities to institute bus-only lanes to speed rush-hour commutes, and Baker predicted “a whole bunch more” will be coming next year.
And soon, he said, new Orange Line cars will start rolling out in stages, incrementally increasing capacity on the crowded line.
Some riders say they’ve seen improvement under Baker. Laurie Everett said her bus ride from Arlington to Alewife is more reliable, and she especially likes the improvements in notification signs and mobile apps about arriving trains and buses, a priority of the T’s technology team.
“I do feel like there’s a grown-up presence there, and I think it’s improved,” she said.
But others, like Brendan Halpin of Jamaica Plain, are far from satisfied. A frustrated Orange Line commuter, Halpin this year challenged public officials to ride the T to understand what passengers experience. Gonzalez took him up on the challenge; Baker has not.
“It’s not enough to say it’s going to get better. It really needs to be better now,” said Halpin, who plans to vote for Gonzalez. “I don’t follow the proposals of what’s coming down the pike. I follow what my experience on the T is.”