Yvonne Abraham

Seeing red over the mess that is the MBTA

Red Line riders wait to make a connection on a crowded platform at JFK/UMass Station.
Red Line riders wait to make a connection on a crowded platform at JFK/UMass Station.John R. Ellement/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

There’s nothing like a disaster to focus the mind.

But will we still be livid about our basket case of a transit system once the Red Line is back to what passes for normal around here?

Let’s hope so, because sustained rage is the only thing that will get us out of this mess. Tuesday’s derailment — and the misery it brought travelers on that benighted line — has again exposed the woeful limitations of our transit network. Not just of the T, but the trains, buses, roads, and ferries around it, all utterly inadequate to serve our expanding region.


Many commuters had no choice but to endure the delays caused by the accident. Those who opted to travel by car found traffic moving like sludge. Those who sprang for ride-share services — which have served to further choke our roads over the last year — were gouged by surge pricing. That’s what happens when one of the slender threads by which our transportation system hangs is snapped.

On the upside, a derailment, or a crippling snowstorm, has a way of making everybody sit up and take notice. More people start to use the c-word.

“This is a crisis,” says Chris Dempsey, head of advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, who for years has been describing the system that way. “I know I’m a broken record, but you’re seeing others start to use that word, which I’m excited about.”

A crisis means more people besides those directly affected by the latest misery take notice. Most of the time, T riders have don’t have much juice. The folks who make things happen on Beacon Hill seem to value the votes of the drivers who clog the roads over those of the suckers who ride the rails. The governor, and too many legislators, have been allergic to higher gas taxes and toll hikes and congestion pricing and other measures that might make motorists less likely to crowd into a city already crammed with vehicles. We don’t want to make them angrier.


But by all means, let’s raise MBTA fares. Think you’re suffering now, Red Liners? How about we charge you 6 percent more for that pain come July? You’re welcome!

A crisis, for as long as it lasts, means T riders aren’t alone in their anger. And there are so many people to be angry with right now. Start with the short-term thinkers on Beacon Hill who neglected the transit system for decades, underfunding it and failing to plan for the region’s expanding needs until too late. And Governor Charlie Baker. While Governor Fixit deserves credit for investing more on T upgrades than has been spent in years, he refuses to reckon with the fact that running a transit system that does more than tread water requires serious new investment. He has also refused to take a ride on the T himself in the wake of the disruptions, declining invitations from his critics (and me).

His transportation department has an ambitious vision for the region’s needs, including an end to gas-powered vehicles. No way should voters give Baker a third term unless he has a plan for turning that vision into action.

And let’s put more heat on the business community. More corporate leaders than ever seem to agree that decades of inaction imperil their bottom lines. Boston Chamber of Commerce chief Jim Rooney was especially vocal last week, using the c-word and demanding the MBTA take a bolder approach. (Fun fact: Rooney collects one of the generous MBTA pensions the Baker administration blames for the T’s financial woes.) But a bunch of business groups, including Rooney’s outfit, fought a tax on millionaires that would have provided an estimated $2 billion a year in funding for transportation and education.


If his members don’t like that kind of revenue raising, they ought to say what funding plan they can get behind, and soon. A world-class transit system is expensive. It’s time for everybody to pay their fair share. And that will happen only if enough of us stay angry.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.