2019 will be another big year in Boston transportation
There was rarely a quiet corner in the commuter world in 2018. Now, with 2019 bringing new trains, new policies, and — surely — new debates about how to fight crippling gridlock, here are some of the biggest items to watch in the new year.
Forward on the T?
The new year begins with much of the same old creaky infrastructure at the MBTA, including balky signals and overcrowded trains. But some of the improvements riders have long heard about should start showing in 2019:
■ The first new six-car Orange Line train is expected to enter service early in the year. Then the first of the new Red Line cars is expected in late 2019, with the fleets of both lines fully replaced by 2023. Meantime, the first of 24 new Green Line cars has already entered service.
■ Many bus routes are expected to be tweaked this spring, as the T expects to release about 50 quick-fix recommendations, a prelude to a much larger overhaul of the entire bus map with new or adjusted routes. Also expect more bus-only lanes on city streets in and around Boston.
■ A rebuilt Wollaston Station will open in the summer after a two-year closure.
■ The T’s new fare collection technology could see a soft opening late in the year, with a limited number of riders allowed to test out the all-electronic payment system, before full deployment in 2020.
Big Dig 2, Big Dig 3, etc.?
The biggest highway project in Boston could finally get into gear in 2019, as the state prepares to straighten and replace the long looping section of the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston. The project has been the subject of a long debate over whether to put the highway at grade level or keep it on a raised viaduct. It’s looking like Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack will miss her self-imposed deadline of the end of 2018 to decide which option the state will pursue.
The federal government, meanwhile, is considering replacing the two 83-year-old bridges over the Cape Cod Canal, owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Officials have not committed to a deadline for a decision, but the state is already planning to make changes to the road networks around the two bridges on the assumption that they will be fully replaced.
And some activists expect to spend the early part of 2019 pressuring the MBTA to build a tunnel under Cambridge Street that would connect the Red and Blue lines at Charles/MGH Station.
The state Legislature’s two transportation chiefs both say they plan to recommend additional new funding for highway and transit operations in the new session that starts in January. Business leaders, too, have begun pressuring the state to spend more money, more quickly to improve transportation infrastructure.
Governor Charlie Baker, who typically resists calls for broad-based tax increases, has embraced one idea that could raise revenue: a multistate system that sets pollution limits on fuel distributors and imposes a fee on companies that exceed the cap. Baker and fellow governors around the Northeast recently announced they will work to develop such a program.
In the meantime, the T is likely to tap its riders for more money. The agency has strongly signaled that it plans to increase fares in July, which would require a vote by its governing board by the spring.
Sick of traffic? So are state officials. The Baker administration has described Greater Boston’s congestion as an economic and environmental threat, and the governor last summer called for a study of what’s causing it and how to address it. That study is due by spring.
A big report on transportation planning issued in December recommended Baker consider adjusting toll rates to discourage driving into the city — an idea Baker vetoed twice last summer. He has since indicated he is potentially interested, but hardly sold, noting that increased tolls could be unfair to low-income workers.
Then there are all those Uber and Lyft rides that experts say are probably adding to congestion. Boston’s transportation department expects to have designated pick-up and drop-off areas in the city for ride-share companies available in 2019, in a bid to stop drivers from double parking or blocking traffic.
Greet the new boss(es)
A new MBTA general manager takes over Jan. 1, at an agency that’s seen plenty of them in recent years. Steve Poftak, who previously served as interim general manager, will seek to bring some stability to a position that has turned over five times under Baker. The Legislature is also expected to focus on creating a new board of directors for the T, as the current board’s term expires in mid-2020. And the Massachusetts Port Authority is searching for a permanent replacement for former chief executive Tom Glynn.
Baker’s top transportation official, meanwhile, is expected to stick around for the governor’s second term. The governor has said Pollack has the job as long as she wants it.
One of the biggest initiatives underway at the T is a study to improve the commuter rail, possibly with more frequent service and different types of vehicles. Recommendations from a long, ongoing study are expected by the end of the year.
And the scooter craze that has swept other US cities — and briefly took Somerville and Cambridge this year — may come to Boston, if city and state governments can agree on how to best oversee the companies that rent them.
Electric scooters, by the way, were hardly on anyone’s radar just 18 months ago — a reminder that when it comes to transportation, you can only forecast so much.