As shocking as it was to see two MBTA derailments in the span of a week, the aftermath of yet another major failure of our public transit system has felt all too familiar. An angry region struggles to adjust as traffic thickens with commuters abandoning public transportation, and riders who can’t afford alternatives are punished with ongoing delays and impending fare hikes. To reverse the decline of our public transit system and end the transportation disparities that divide our city and region, we must channel calls for change into changed governance.
A year from now, the MBTA’s temporary oversight board, the five-member Fiscal and Management Control Board, or FMCB, is scheduled to dissolve. Born in the aftermath of the snowpocalypse winter of 2015 that crippled our decrepit public transit infrastructure, the FMCB replaced the MassDOT Board of Directors as the governing body for the T. But in carving out T oversight from MassDOT’s larger agenda, the FMCB also eliminated direct municipal voice. The 175 municipalities within the T’s service area used to have a weighted vote on the T budget through the separate MBTA Advisory Board, but cities and towns lost that leverage under the new structure. In other words, the goal was to concentrate accountability and action in the governor’s office.
Riders have seen little change and no urgency under Governor Baker’s stewardship of the T. The double derailment spotlighted a deteriorating system that has only seen more crowding and strain since the FMCB was established. We need communities and stakeholders who are directly impacted by the T to have a direct voice in the agency’s governance and push for the scale and pace of change our region deserves.
The City of Boston and the T need each other. From designating bus-only lanes to implementing transit signal priority, the MBTA and Boston Transportation Department must work together like never before to unclog roads and keep riders on buses and the Green Line moving — for the health of the entire region. This month, a new designated bus lane will be added on Brighton Avenue in Allston, and Boston needs to double down on these improvements, expanding bus lanes rapidly to all city streets where bus riders are chronically delayed by congestion. Every municipality in the MBTA’s service area has a role to play in driving expanded transit access and equity.
Yet we are one of the only major transit systems in the United States where municipalities have no role in decision-making. Mayors in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have the power to appoint multiple seats to their state-based transit boards, and in the Bay Area, BART’s board has four appointments that are publicly elected.
Our neighbors in Worcester have a Regional Transit Authority board composed of municipal representatives from service area communities, with the number of representatives based on population. The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority board is composed of the municipal executives of each of the 24 service area communities.
We need a T governance structure capable of responding to the depth of our regional transportation crisis while tearing down silos that keep municipal leaders and state officials from working together with urgency on shared goals. Along with MassDOT board members, the new oversight board should include a rider representative, a permanent seat for the City of Boston, a rotating seat for municipalities in the T’s inner core service area, and a rotating seat to represent communities served by commuter rail.
To make the most of this restructuring, the Commonwealth should also revisit the contribution from ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, whose growth directly erodes transit ridership and further strains our traffic-clogged streets. Massachusetts led the way as our statewide legislation on ride-hailing companies was among the first in the country, but today the state tax of $0.20 per ride is among the lowest in the country and does not match the impacts on our roads. Amid a booming economy, the region’s debilitating congestion and skyrocketing housing prices show the irresponsibility of forgoing infrastructure investments needed to accommodate our growth.
The state should match increased funding and more accountable governance so that our public transit system will be not just a lifeline, but a direct connection to opportunity and shared prosperity.
Michelle Wu is an at-large Boston city councilor.