The Achilles heel of Governor Charlie Baker’s potential bid for a third term was on full display on Tuesday morning when a Red Line train derailed at the JFK/UMass station, causing widespread commuter chaos.
Shuttle buses couldn’t handle the flood of passengers. Ride-hailing services took advantage of stranded T commuters by jacking up prices. And traffic gridlock knotted the roads into Boston.
Responding to reports of the morning disaster, Baker insisted the T is moving “in the right direction on that stuff.” While he wishes system updates could proceed more quickly, they can’t, he said. Meanwhile, he sees no need for any additional cash infusion — beyond the MBTA fare increase due to click in on July 1, of course.
In the meantime, Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, announced he is launching an independent review of derailments that have occurred over the past two years. Strangely, the GM, who was hailed for his deep insider knowledge when he was named to the job in December, said he didn’t know how many derailments that covers. However, Tuesday’s derailment was the second in a week, and the fifth in this calendar year. The Globe has reported that the T has suffered the second-most derailments of any transit system in the country over the last five years, trailing only New Orleans. On Saturday, a Green Line derailment near Kenmore Square injured 11 people. The driver was suspended, T officials announced on Monday.
Calling for an independent review is a time-honored way to kick the can down the railroad track. And when the T broke down early in his first term, Baker promised a lot more than that. He promised a complete system makeover, worthy of the state’s booming economy and appeal to tourist and business travel.
In a tweet Baker should consider a warning, James Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, called the recent derailments “another reminder that we need major & urgent investment, prioritization of projects and a plan.” City officials, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, also expressed outrage over the Tuesday breakdown.
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll shows that Baker remains popular with Massachusetts voters. Indeed, 66 percent of those surveyed think he should run for a third term. At the same time, 60 percent also said their commute is getting worse. At some point, one of those data points could affect the other.
Democrats are already zooming in on transportation as a political target. Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, released a statement that said derailments don’t just cause delays and frustrations, “they put lives at risk.” Even before Tuesday’s incident, he added, Baker “double-downed on his position that we don’t need additional revenue to fix our broken public transportation system or our crumbling roads and bridges.”
Baker promised to fix an ancient and unreliable public transit system. The T is at the center of so many of the state’s priorities — quality of life, climate mitigation, economic competitiveness, housing — that getting it right isn’t optional. If he’s seriously thinking of running for a third term, he’s got to show some more serious, tangible progress soon.