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MBTA system failures highlight aging transportation infrastructure

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
MBTA system failures highlight aging transportation infrastructure
MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott (Photo: Courtesy of MBTA)

Winter storm Neptune, the third of an unprecedented series of storms, dropped more than a foot of snow on the Bay State last week, bringing MBTA service to a halt and sparking a spirited debate over investment in the state’s public transit system.

After a pair of dueling press conferences exposed what appeared to be icy relations between MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott and Gov. Charlie Baker, Scott announced she will resign in April.

The opening salvo came after the storm subsided on Feb. 9, when Baker gave what many saw as pointed criticism of Scott.

“We’ve been frustrated, disappointed with the performance of the T,” he told reporters. “The public transportation system has to work. Let’s face it – this can’t happen again.”

The following day, Scott fired back, giving reporters a spirited discourse on the intricacies of running a 100-year-old system with 40-year-old trains.

“For anyone to believe that a system that is over 100 years old, that’s got equipment, much of it running out there on the Red and Orange lines that are overcapacity to continue at the age it is, and to think that it’s going to have the resilience to wind up rebounding, that’s the epitome of… I’m not going to say foolish,” she told reporters.

For a day, Scott’s impassioned plea for investment in the aging system stood in contrast to Baker’s rebuke of the MBTA’s performance. Then, Wednesday, when Scott announced her impending resignation from the post, the discussion moved away from Scott and the governor and toward the system’s needs.

Scott drew criticism from some media outlets, but her message of longstanding disinvestment in a system on which nearly a third of all Boston workers rely also struck a chord. Subsequently, Baker appeared to backtrack from his earlier statement, pointing out to reporters that he didn’t mention Scott by name in his Monday critique of the MBTA and had no plans to seek her resignation.

Scott’s announcement that she would leave the MBTA in April appeared to take Baker by surprise, although until Thursday Baker had had no direct communication with her since taking office in January.

Monday, Scott announced that the MBTA will not be running at full capacity for another 30 days. Currently, train service is running in the underground portions of the subway system, with limited service to above-ground stations. Shuttle buses, including Peter Pan coaches, will service much of the system’s above-ground rail lines.

A public conversation

Last week’s extraordinary series of events — and this week’s announcement of continued service interruption — put the MBTA and its 900,000 riders in the public eye like few events in the past.

“I think it was an awakening for the new administration,” said former MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera. “The message was definitely heard. It’s an opportunity for us to talk seriously about long-term investments in the MBTA.”

As Scott pointed out in her press conference, cars on the Orange and Red lines are more than 30 years old – well past their expected life span. Switches that allow trains to move from one track to another lack functional heaters to keep them from freezing over in the cold. And, while new Orange Line and Red Line cars have been ordered, delivery is not expected until 2017.

Until then, the MBTA has no funding to make needed repairs to the system. Instead, Scott told reporters, MBTA employees have been working around the clock to remove ice and keep the system running. MBTA officials estimate $3 billion is needed for repairs and upgrades to the aging system.

At the same time, the MBTA was saddled with more than $5 billion in debt from projects related to the Big Dig highway project — a debt burden that consumes $1 of every $5 dollars in the MBTA budget.

Further compounding the MBTA’s fiscal problems, the Legislature and the administrations of former governors Paul Celucci and Jane Swift pushed through a series of tax cuts between 1998 and 2002 that, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, has resulted in a yearly reduction of $3.5 billion in state revenue.

Successive years of revenue shortfalls during the Great Recession added to the improbability of MBTA maintenance. Last week, Gov. Baker and legislative leadership agreed on a $14 million mid-fiscal year cut to the MBTA, as part of a package of cuts aimed at filling a projected $768 deficit.

And when Massachusetts voters last year backed a ballot question that repealed a Massachusetts law linking the gas tax to inflation, the MBTA lost out on another potential source of revenue.

Voters, lawmakers and past governors have all contributed to the MBTA’s current state, said state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry.

“No individual is to blame for what happened,” she said. “Everyone has to take responsibility. There has been very little investment in the T.”

Other black elected officials echoed Forry’s sentiments. During a City Council Meeting last week, councilors Ayanna Pressley, Tito Jackson and Charles Yancey expressed support for Scott and called for more investment in the MBTA.

“This is an antiquated system,” Jackson said. “These are the same trains that were running on the El. We have the oldest and most antiquated trains running on our rails. It’s time we have a conversation about solutions and stop pointing fingers.”

System failure

The vulnerability of the aging system was laid bare by last week’s punishing snow storm. A disabled Red Line train, its motors disabled by fine-grained snow that shorted its circuitry, stood motionless on the tracks below Dorchester Avenue Monday while passengers were forced to walk through knee-deep snow. Traffic on Interstate 93 zoomed by on plowed and salted travel lanes.

Long lines of snow-weary commuters waited for shuttle buses along the Red Line, forcing the MBTA to borrow Peter Pan coaches to service its Braintree and Quincy branches.

Monday of this week, all above-ground service on the MBTA’s rail system was shut down while workers cleared ice and snow from the tracks. That ritual may be repeated next Monday as another storm is forecast for the weekend.

As much as some commuters wanted to direct their anger toward the agency, former MBTA General Manager Bob Prince said T workers were doing their level best to shore up the aging machinery.

“The workforce the T has, working around the clock to keep things moving — I’d match them against any workforce in the world,” said Prince, a Roxbury resident who still rides the T. “But sometimes your arms are too short to box with God.”

Dorcena Forry said MBTA’s system failure during recent storms presents an opportunity for policy change. But helping dig the MBTA out of debt and modernizing its equipment and rolling stock will require cooperation at all levels of government, she added.

“It has to be all hands on deck,” she said. “I’m hopeful that now is the time. It’s not about blaming people. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

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