Should the MBTA halt plans for expansion?
West Medford; Associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," blogger (www.dankennedy.net).
We have learned many things about our public transportation system this winter, none of them good. But perhaps the most important is this: We have no business rushing headlong into expanding a fragile network that breaks down when it's too cold, too snowy or — as is often the case — for no particular reason at all.
Like thousands of other commuters frustrated by trains and subway cars that don't arrive, I've been closely following news coverage about what's wrong with the MBTA. Is too little spending on maintenance the problem? Incompetent management? New trains so badly made that they spend months in the repair shop before they can be put into service? Overly generous union contracts? Big Dig debt? And how much should we blame Keolis, the private company that manages commuter rail?
I don't know the answers, and I leave it to those investigating #MBTApocalypse to find out. But it seems clear that the last thing we need is a continued push toward expansion when what we've got isn't working.
My own encounters with public transportation this winter are no different from those of many other riders. There was the morning that the commuter train was a good half-hour late, and no one — including the flag man — had any idea what was going on. (I walked back home and took my car.) There was another morning, bitterly cold, when hundreds of people waiting for the Orange Line were stranded at Oak Grove. And on and on.
Recently I heard state Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack tell a radio interviewer that she had started driving to work rather than run the risk of being late for morning meetings. If an ardent environmentalist like Pollack believes she can no longer rely on the T, it shows how close to the precipice we've come.
Public transportation eases highway congestion, improves air quality, and is a prime engine of the regional economy. We need and deserve first-rate, reliable trains, subway lines, trolleys, and buses. Maybe in a few years we can think seriously about expanding commuter rail to the South Coast and building the Green Line out to Medford, to name just two projects that are in the planning stages.
Right now, though, the first priority should be to fix what we've got.
Joseph A. Curtatone
Mayor of Somerville
We already live in one of the most congested regions in the country and Massachusetts' population will increase by more than 290,000 people by 2030, with more than half of those new people in Greater Boston. Three-quarters of the world's people will live in city regions by 2050. Meanwhile, the cost burden of commuting for our working poor is two-thirds more than other workers. New tech and legacy companies all are locating near public transit. The MBTA hit record high ridership last year. Gas-guzzling cars are a known driver of climate change. And you want to stop public transportation expansion?
OK, but prepare for the consequences: higher transportation costs, less earnings, higher unemployment, less productivity, more congestion and pollution, lower state revenues: a region stuck in literal and financial gridlock. Expanding public transit decreases commuting costs for families, creates jobs, increases earnings, and boosts tax revenues. Stopping expansion is a myopic approach to the current funding problem. We need to plan for the future that we know is coming.
We can't solve the funding problem overnight. The Commonwealth saddled the MBTA with $3.3 billion in Big Dig debt and a woefully inadequate and unrealistic "Forward Funding" plan. The Legislature watered down Governor Patrick's "Way Forward" funding plan. We voted to repeal tying the gas tax to the Consumer Price Index because some cried "reform before revenue," but we've done reform twice and still have a revenue problem. Looking to the past isn't to lay blame. It's to avoid repeating past mistakes so we can prudently plan for tomorrow.
Want a strong economy tomorrow? Expand today. Look at Assembly Square: $133 million of tax dollars created a new T station, unlocked $1.5 billion of initial private investment, will generate more than 20,000 net new jobs, and pump billions into our economy. Los Angeles is rapidly expanding its subway system and given birth to the economic engine that is "Silicon Beach." Even Oklahoma City in the heart of red state America is pursuing expanded public transportation.
At home, the Green Line Extension has attracted a $1 billion federal investment and will leverage even more in private investment, create more jobs, and further strengthen our region's economy. As will the Silver Line to Chelsea. As will the Urban Ring. As will the Indigo Line. And a strong economy generates more revenue to put back into transit.
Plan for tomorrow. Invest in expansion today.