It’s winter again in Boston. Anyone who was here last year knows what that means – our ability to move about the city could come to a screeching halt in the blink of an eye.
The MBTA (or the “T”) completely shut down last winter after repeated large storms, stranding thousands of travelers and creating severely overcrowded vehicles on services that did run. The T relies every day on outdated, overburdened and overstressed equipment, some of which was built a full 70 years ago. Before the storms that brought the T to a halt last winter, we knew that the MBTA had a maintenance backlog upward of $5 billion. It is now estimated to be upwards of $7 billion. If nothing more, last winter proved that the trend of procrastinating on putting together a plan to address the MBTA’s needs is materially harmful to the residents of eastern Massachusetts who currently rely on the T.
Despite this, demand for transit services in Boston has been growing. Since 2010, the number of unlinked trips on the MBTA has increased by 15 percent. In the same time period, the population of the Boston area grew just six percent. Boston is hardly alone in seeing increasing demand for transit: all across the country, transit ridership is growing. Transit agencies across the United States handled more than 10.5 billion unlinked trips in 2014, a five percent increase from 9.95 billion in 2010. The population of the United States grew just three percent in the same period. While Boston’s elected officials wrestle over whether or not to fund the Green Line Extension, new transit services in other parts of the country, such as the new Green Line light rail in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota and the CTfastrak system in Hartford, Connecticut have been so successful that they are approaching their 2030 ridership goals nearly 15 years ahead of schedule.
Clearly, there is a serious disconnect between Boston’s demand for transit and our leaders’ willingness to provide it. Right now, the state and city have agreed to spend almost $150 million to encourage General Electric to move its 800-person corporate headquarters to Boston, while the T’s new Fiscal and Management Control Board is doing its utmost to kill the MBTA’s popular late night service to save a mere $14 million. Our leaders are developing Boston as a hub of innovation, but not as a hub for transportation.
It is this disconnect between Boston’s transit usage and our transit funding that we plan to explore through writing this column. Why are many cities across the country choosing to expand and improve the quality of their transit systems, while cities such as Boston are unable to come up with the political willpower to maintain the systems they have? Are Boston’s transit woes just political, or is it actually impossible for transit systems to be fiscally sustainable? Is it possible for cities such as Boston to not invest in transit, given that urban areas are seeing population growth at a significantly greater rate than the rest of the country? We look forward to sharing our ideas about transportation and its related social, economic, political and environmental effects with you over the course of this semester in our column, Bridge the Gap.