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Transit activists hopeful MBTA shut downs will spur investment in system

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Transit activists hopeful MBTA shut downs will spur investment in system
City residents’ patience wore thin in January and February as successive snowstorms made mbta bus, subway and commuter rail performance unreliable.

In the aftermath of the historic January and February snowstorms in Boston that led to transit shutdowns, stuck trains, borrowed shuttle buses and frustrating delays at frigid platforms, the MBTA announced it could be another 30 days before full service resumes on its rail lines.

If the T’s very public crisis has an upside, it may be that it has jump-started active conversation about the agency’s troubles and what can be done to ensure its future health. Some, including Governor Charlie Baker, have speculated recently that part of the problem stems from over-ambitious expansion plans made while core operations were left to deteriorate, but transit advocates have long argued that decades of chronic underfunding have weakened the system.

“My 1st Suffolk District is a community that relies heavily on public transportation, both buses and trains,” said state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. “I don’t think these problems are from expansion. This is decades of lack of investment.”

Dorcena Forry was adamant that the improvements in progress on the Fairmount Line that runs through Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan should not be halted, as that work is already funded and is part of a Big Dig mitigation agreement.

State Rep. Russell Holmes also has Fairmount Line stations and riders in his district.

Holmes said he understands the concerns many have voiced about the expansion of the MBTA at a time when the agency has struggled to maintain its aging infrastructure, but echoed Dorcena Forry in emphasizing that the revitalization of the Fairmount Line, which for decades bypassed stops in the transit-dependent black community, was mandated by the federal government to offset the environmental impacts of increased pollution from the Big Dig project.

Besides, Holmes noted, no one is arguing for a reduction in MBTA service.

“We want more reliable transit and more service, and on the other side, we don’t want to pay higher taxes or higher fares,” he said. “That equation doesn’t work. The crisis going on now gives us an opportunity to look at this again and do major reforms. This crisis should not go on without a resolution.”

A matter of equity

Mela Bush is lead organizer for the Four Corners Action Coalition, a neighborhood stabilization group in Dorchester that spearheaded formation of the Fairmount/Indigo Transit Coalition more than a decade ago. The Coalition has successfully advocated for new stations such as Newmarket and Four Corners/Geneva Ave, and for reducing fares on the line to match subway prices.

Bush cited the mitigation agreement that led to the interior expansion of the Fairmount Linea as an equity issue.

“This was a civil rights battle,” she said. “We were taking an hour and a half to go downtown, while the trains were running right through our neighborhoods without stopping. We fought for these trains and won. Finally, we got the new stations built, and others renovated, and weekend service so workers at Newmarket and other places could get to work.”

She has been thinking a lot about what needs to be done.

“We need our state legislators to be on board, and to make sure at the federal level public transportation is being prioritized,” she said. “The historical ‘kick the can’ game continues to go on. If the funding for the MBTA is not prioritized, we’re going to continue to see these things happen,”

Bush added that familiarity with the T on the part of high-level decision-makers would go a long way toward achieving the necessary improvements.

“We have this idea that you can’t understand a person until you walk a mile in their shoes,” she said. “Michael Dukakis understood public transit because he took it. I want to know when was the last time Gov. Baker got on the T or the bus or the commuter rail. You can’t think to cut something if you really haven’t ridden a day in a commuter’s seat.”

One of the community groups that make up the Fairmount/Indigo Line Coalition is the Fairmount CDC Collaborative, a group of community development corporations located in areas served by the Fairmount Line.

Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation is one of those CDCs. Its executive director, Gail Latimore, said that while she believes the Fairmount funding is relatively safe, she’s been following the transit conversation closely.

“We certainly do not want to lose the gains we have seen on the Fairmount line, and do not want to get caught up in the discussion of expansion,” she said.

Baker announced last week the formation of an advisory committee made up of local and national experts to study the T’s operations and make recommendations for improvement by the end of March.

Dorcena Forry supports the new commission, and looks forward to the results of the 30-day examination. She said that while greater efficiency in T operations should clearly be a goal, additional investment is necessary.

“I’m sure the report will show that we have to invest significantly,” she said. “I hope they’ll identify both short-term and long term solutions. I hope we’ll see how we in the Legislature can help. We want to know that if it snows like this again, we’ll be prepared for it.”

Dorcena Forry also mentioned the need to maximize the flow of federal resources for public transit. In her role as Senate chair of a newly-formed Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, she will be in a position to work with the state congressional delegation toward that end.

Kristina Egan is director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition pushing for public transit investment that has made reform recommendations focused on efficiency, expanding transportation choices, and a comprehensive long term funding solution. The group’s online petition demanding improvements and adequate funding has received more than 8,000 signatures.

“Our problems were real before the snowfall. The weather just put them all on display,” Egan said. “We are explaining the situation and preparing concrete solutions.”

A statewide issue

Her coalition’s 47 member organizations include environmental, public health, community development and business interests around Greater Boston and across Massachusetts. Business organizations easily see how public transportation is an important economic engine, Egan said. As for statewide support, she noted that problems are not limited to the Boston area’s T system; regional bus services around the state, as well as roads and bridges, also need more attention.

“The T is the canary in the coal mine, but the problem is statewide,” she said. “Any T fix should be accompanied by balanced investment in the rest of the state.”

Egan hopes the governor’s new advisory committee produces a plan that includes new revenues.

“Most experts agree that it’s wishful thinking to try to fix the T with just reforms,” she said. “Right now, residents are paying with their time, lost wages, car repair costs. We’re all being taxed in a different way because transportation is inadequate.”

Pushing for tax increases is never easy for legislators, but Egan believes Massachusetts residents actually are not averse to new funding for what they want and need.

“Polls show that if people know their taxes are going to fix the potholes and make their transit service more reliable, they’re willing to pay that,” she said.